dialogue with treehouse artists

a survivor of lyme disease and one of the most un-obnoxiously positive and enduring artists, marissa's brainchild, highland kites, has already toured the united states several times over the last few years, and were just signed with metropolitan groove merchants who will be releasing highland kites’ latest ep "better off" early this year, before they head back out on tour.

already in love with the music i've heard, i am looking forward to sitting down with marissa, hearing more about her creative process and the story behind her songs. but before i have even asked her a question, she volunteers that it can be hard to explain herself in words that aren't musical.

this resonates with me, and as her lyrics are pure poetry, and i am intrigued. i begin at the beginning.

how does she get started? when she wants to write a song, how does she start?

there is a moment of silence.

"that's a good question," she begins.  it isn't something she's thought about a lot.

"i think, normally what i do is i sit down and i will have a basic idea of what i want to write about, like a subject, you know?  or a feeling, or something like that, and i'll just toy around with stuff and come up with words and sort of just let things flow, even if they're bad, for as long as i need to in order for me to get to where i want to go.

"i'll feel like 'ok, i really want to write about this certain subject,’ and for me as an artist, the way that someone is going to feel after listening to one of my songs is the most important thing. so i'll sit there and i'll tweak things and i'll tweak words and i'll sort of add sounds based on that."

she goes on to say how she's heard other artists talk about how they have to wait for inspiration, or just sort of won't have anything to create or write about. this isn't the case with her.

"for me it's weird - i try to keep it very artistic, but also treat it like a job in a way, as well.  like, i make myself write every day. i don't write things that i would put on an album everyday!"

we both laugh at that.  she goes on, speaking to her discipline and professionalism as an artist.

"i make myself sit down and i sort of use my instruments and my voice and melodies and things like this to inspire me.  as opposed to the theory of waiting for something to spark, which does happen, but instead of waiting for something to spark something, i sit down and i create until something sparks.  so i'll be messing around and then something i do will give me chills, and then i go with that. if that makes sense?"

i tell her it does. she seems to have the usual artistic roadblocks figured out, in that she doesn't overthink the creative process, she just lets it happen.  but i am curious - what does she find she runs into once she's started? she has designated time each day to write, but does she ever end up just sitting and staring at the blank page?  or does she truly just write anything?

"i think the most frustrating thing that happens to me, is i'll sit there and i'll write something and i'll absolutely hate it. and that will keep happening the whole time that i have allocated to write. and i'll just be like 'ok, this is the worst thing ever, and i forgot how to write songs.'"

before i can comment, she goes on, opening up the very heart in her chest.

"one of my biggest fears - it's not so much a fear as - i don't know how to explain it! but there's this tension about ‘'what if i wake up one day, and i just lose it??' like, what if i forget how to write music or i never write a good song again? and i know its ridiculous, but sometimes i'll sit and i'll go to write something and i'll be like 'wow, this sounds like a 3rd grader, and i don't know what i'm doing!'

"but what i finally figured out over the last couple years especially, is that if i continue to create through that and i push myself through that, i always end up writing something that i really love and it almost comes effortlessly.  so it almost feels like i have to pay the dues of sitting there writing stuff that i don't like, getting frustrated, writing stuff that i don't like, doing it again and again and again, until there's a 10 min stint where i write something from beginning to end, and it's the best thing i've written in the last 4 months.

"it's a weird thing, because i really have learned to trust the process.  this is my creative process and i know that this is going to happen, no matter how frustrating it is.  i know that if i can push through it and keep going, something always comes out of it.

"and it's very strange, and sometimes kind of oddly mystic - like i'll be sleeping and i'll have a dream and i'll hear the song in my dream or i'll hear a melody or a lyric and then i'll wake up and have the song written in 6 or 7 minutes!

"so it seems like 'oh this inspiration came from this divine place!' but i've been sitting down writing songs and trying to hash through the writing process for the last week and a half."

now it is my turn to reflect on what she's said.

i ask if she ever has to give herself a pep talk to remind herself to keep going, or has she just been doing it for so long, she's learned to really trust the process?

i don't want to fish for her pain and suffering, but i wonder if she has gotten to where she can just create without falling down the hole of feeling like a third-grader writing music?

"i wish that i could say that i'm extremely confident at this point, all the time, and that i know exactly what i'm doing and it's always going to work. but that's definitely not the case!"

"you know, i don't know exactly how it is for other artists, but for me, i constantly have to remind myself that what i'm doing is important, and that i'm able to do it and that what i'm doing means something to the world.  because it can get - you know how it is when you're creating things - it can get difficult and also you're choosing to take a path in life that is very different from the large majority of people and you're choosing to do something that's against the grain, and there are days when it's really difficult.  and i feel like that's just the way - i don't know - it's just - you're going up - you're like - "

she's fumbling for words now.  

she tells me i can word this in a way that's not her floundering around for her words, but i find a refreshing bit of honesty in the floundering.  her music and lyrics are all incredibly raw, and to see that as a genuine reflection of who she is raises my respect for her art, and for her as an artist.

"i do my best to stay steady, and keep creating. i do have days where i have breakdowns and i'm like, 'i don't know if i'm good at this! i don't know if people relate to my music.' and i'll burst into tears and cry for 2 hours, and then i'll pick myself back up again, and i'll keep going."

a pause.

"i wish that didn't happen.  but i think part of being an artist is being a very highly emotional person, and caring a lot!"

it is clear how much she cares about her audience, and that she cares about what her music does for people, how it's going to help somebody else.

"i'm telling these stories, but once i'm done telling the stories, they're sort of out of my universe, and they're out of my body and out of my space, and i sort of feel they heal me in a way when i write them.  but then once they're written, they're somebody else's. so, if my music isn't reaching people and it isn't resonating and helping someone else and making someone else feel understood, then i don't feel like i'm doing my job."


"i'm telling these stories, but once i'm done telling the stories, they're sort of out of my universe, and they're out of my body and out of my space, and i sort of feel they heal me in a way when i write them. but then once they're written, they're somebody else's. so, if my music isn't reaching people and it isn't resonating and helping someone else and making someone else feel understood, then i don't feel like i'm doing my job."

it is a job she takes very seriously. Working through independence as a musician can be an uphill battle.  

"as an independent artist and somebody that doesn't have a huge team backing them, and all this money for marketing, and all this stuff happening, it can get a little bit frustrating, because you're like 'i've been doing this for a few years, and why is it not this way, and this other person is this', and not sort of - “

she breaks off before continuing.

"the worst trap to get into for me is the trying to compare myself to others, trying to figure out 'why, why, why?' and 'is there something i could be doing better?' and, yeah - "

"i get better and better at it all the time!  but, you know, i would be lying if i said i didn't ever fall into that, or didn't ever have days where it was hard."

she's silent.

i think about what she just said, ask her if she would say she basically just practices practicing.

"essentially."  she replies.

she says she's had to learn to find her own way, and in the process she's gotten better at not comparing herself to other people.

”in the beginning of my career, that was the thing that upset me the most - when i would sit and compare myself to somebody else. i feel like it's a really terrible thing to do as an artist for a few reasons.  one - it really doesn't matter. and two - every individual artist is so completely unique and so different that comparing your art to someone else's art or your journey to someone else's journey is utterly pointless because you're a completely different person surrounded by completely different circumstances and have a completely different story to tell.

"so, like i said earlier, it's really learning to trust the process.  like, 'ok, this is a journey and if i'm not enjoying every step of the journey, then why am i even doing it?'"

that touches on my next question as far as what she was talking about earlier in that she creates her music for her own catharsis, but more so for someone else to be able to receive it and internalize it.

does she ever worry about how her art will be received?

"sometimes, because i tend to write music that's - i don't know, how would you describe my music?"

i do not answer this.

"it is very brutally honest, and can be intense. i get worried that maybe it's too much, you know? 'is this too much for people? is this going to have the opposite effect of what i want? like make someone feel worse?’ but i'm a big believer that what's gonna come through in your art is your intention. and if somebody writes a sad song but they're writing it because they want people to feel better, that's gonna come through. when i'm writing something i'm just making sure my intentions are really clean and i'm taking responsibility for the effect i'm going to create on somebody else when they receive it."

it is evident that she feels a lot of responsibility in her art.

"i feel like it's the job of an artist to make the world easier to live in - to make people feel like they're not alone, to make people feel understood, and then to help create a better future. so you have someone, once they really understand what's going on with them or they feel acknowledged and they see that you can take your experiences and you can turn them into something beautiful. the power of that is so great - i don't know how to say it exactly but it's just - there's something really magical about being able to do that. i want people to feel better! i want people to feel understood and acknowledged. i want them to know that there's hope, and that things can get better, all the time.”


“i feel like it's the job of an artist to make the world easier to live in - to make people feel like they're not alone, to make people feel understood, and then to help create a better future.”

"that's what we're doing - we're painting pictures, we're looking at things in different ways, we're rearranging thoughts, and we're creating a future that's different than the one that we're in."

i find her words to be inspired.  but i am also more curious now.

does she see her art as having the same role that she does as an artist?

she considers this for a moment before replying.

"like i said, i feel like it’s different for each individual person.  but in my estimation but i feel that the purpose of art, for me, an artist takes everyday living, so you take things that everybody goes through, right? we all fall in love, we all fall out of love, we all go through pain, we all have these things in common.  and there's things, everyday things that maybe people look at as boring or whatever, but an artist imbues life and beauty and magic into everything."

hearing her words through the lens of a writer, i ask her if she sees art to be the magical interpretation of everyday normalities?  

she does.

"i feel like that would be accurate - because when you do that, you spark people's creativity. and i think sparking people's creativity is a really important role that art plays in this world.  because if you can consistently spark people's creativity as an artist and inspire people to do the same thing, then just imagine the ripple effect of that beauty and that creativity occurring. if that makes any sense?"

it does.

"for me, i want to inspire people.  i want people to listen to something that i make or a video that is connected to our music or whatever and want to create.  like 'oh i want to make something! i want to take my thoughts and create something.' it's like spreading that desire and like passion to turn life into art."

i then ask how she sees herself impacting that role.

"i think that our music is incredibly personal - and very honest.  if nothing else, it's incredibly honest. so, there's gonna be people in this world that need what i'm saying and i know that - i know that there's people out there who need what we're making.  that's why i'm working so hard to get our music out to people who need it. ultimately, when i'm able to do that on the scale that i want to do that in, i'm going to be able to help people heal.  and help people become inspired, and create themselves."

i find myself inspired, even just hearing the passion and dedication in her voice.

she must be dedicated, as she already told me she sets out time every single day to work on her music.  

i ask if there is a specific time of day she prefers, or a set schedule she follows, or if it is more free-form, only following a "once a day" rule?

"my schedule kinda changes day to day but i pretty much spend between 6-8 hours every single day creating, which is more of a recent thing because i've been organizing my life to be able to work on my art more for the last five years, so now i'm actually able to work on my art now, which is incredible.”

"personally, when i can, i really like writing early in the morning.  i feel like my head is the clearest at that time, and it's quiet, i'm rested.”

"there's something about, you know that feeling first thing in the morning everything feels fresh and brand new?  i love creating right when that happens. right when you wake up and you're like 'ok great!' and you have your coffee, it's a new day, you haven't been inundated with phone calls, texts, social media, like nothing is in your universe.  that's for me at least.

"i know a lot of artists aren't morning people.  but, deep down i'm an 85 year old woman."

we both laugh at that but i know what she means as far as that promise of a beginning in the early morning. and that's what she loves about it.   

"i also feel like you haven't tainted your thought process with all the things we get inundated with all day long.  your mind gets cluttered - there's a million people talking to you - text messages, phone calls, problems you have to handle.  there's all these things that happen throughout the day and sometimes it's hard to start your creative process waaaay after all that has happened.  like you're starting to do it at eight o'clock at night. that's just for me though. some people love working super late into the evening.

"it's funny though, i can get a similar effect, if i were to start my song writing after everyone's in bed and then write until 3 or 4 in the morning.  it would probably be similar, but i would just go unconscious on my keyboard."

her voice has a singing quality to it even when she's talking.  it is clear that art is the forefront of her life.

i am curious what her favorite medium is to connect with her audiences.  highland kites has put out so much music over the years in digital formats of albums, eps and singles, along with actual cds, live concerts, living room shows, and tours.  they most recently played at the opening of the dunedin international film festival where festival goers were talking about their set all weekend.

of all of these formats, which is her favorite?

"my absolute favorite thing to do is to play live. i just feel like there's an energy and something really special about a live performance.  for me, every time i play a song live, i completely relive the moment of the song. so, which is good and also by the time i'm done performing i'm completely emotionally and physically exhausted.  i really take everything within me, and just give it my all. but there's something really special about that. because i feel like when you do that, you're really connecting with the audience, and that's the whole point.

"for me too, its tangible, if that makes sense?  like i can sing a song, and i can look at the audience and i can see that they're looking at me and there's a connection happening, and there's a connection happening with the people in the room with each other, you know because this music and this art form is bringing everyone together in this really special way, just something about the environment about a live show that i am just completely in love with!"

"i love recording, i love going in the studio - but it's just not the same. it's a different kind of thing.  the studio is so special and fun because you get to really dig in and figure out 'what's the best thing you can do for this song?'  it's a whole different set of thrilling emotions. it's a whole different thing. but, yeah."

again, her passion is clear in her voice.  

i ask what her favorite venue is for performing live.

"my absolute favorite are shows that we put on ourselves.  living room shows, shows where we rent the space ourselves - that's my absolute favorite thing to do."

how does she do it? how does she keep going despite the fact that the music industry is far from the most accommodating industry.  what about it makes her want to keep going?

she thinks about this for a few moments.  and then a few moments more.

"i feel...  i feel that that art breeds this really special form of connection amongst other humans like we're all connected, right?  we all have - i don't know how to say it exactly - "

she breaks off and says she's going to start over.  laughing, she goes on.

"this is gonna sounds really cheesy but i know that there's people out there who need our art.  i know that there are people out there who need to hear our songs. so, what keeps me going is that what we're making, and the passion that we're putting into this, and the consistency that we have in giving a completely honest form of art, is going to connect to people and the people it connects with, it's gonna change them.  and they need what we're making. so it keeps me from giving up.

"because if you get the idea in your head that there's so many artists, and everyone's doing it and whatever who cares - i've heard people talk about it in that way, but the truth is, every single human being on the planet has a different way of thinking about everything. and everyone is completely unique and every artist is completely unique and your message, and the way that you look at things and process experiences, and live through experiences, and survive through things is important. and if you're able to communicate that to people in a way that uplifts them and makes life easier to live - "

"i have this feeling of responsibility about it, if that makes sense?  like, i know that this is going to help somebody. so that's why it's never been like 'oh, we want to be super popular and super blah! we just want to get a bunch of people to follow us on instagram!’ all those kind of things have never been anything that we've been interested in, because we're interested in connected with human beings.  like, we want to connect with people, and we want them to be helped through our art. “

so that's why we've just kinda been taking the road of 'ok good - we're gonna keep making things, we're gonna keep doing shows, we're gonna keep going on tour, we're gonna keep at it until more and more people increasingly connect with it.  yeah. that's it!"

her laugh, like her words, is just genuine.  

she says sometimes it's hard.  she knows if she were to maybe do something a little more flashy or what was trendy, she would probably get more followers and become more popular quicker, but she can't bring herself to do that, for good reason.

"i have this innate inability to do anything that doesn't feel completely genuine.  i don't know. i just can't! like - " she starts laughing at the absurdity of losing who you are in a desperation to be loved as something you are not. you know what i mean?" she continues, still as open and honest as her songs.  "the things that i say, my music, the way i dress, i just can't. i just stick to what feels right, and what feels comfortable, and what matters to me.  yeah. it might be longer - like the road might be longer because we're doing it the way that we're doing it.  but i have the satisfaction of knowing that that i stuck to what was true for me, and that is more important than ever becoming famous. even if i became famous, but i lied - about who i was, and i lied about what i cared about the whole time but i was a millionaire, i would die a miserable human.  so i think it's just keeping my priorities straight. like, why am i doing this? and what effect do i want to create?"

i appreciate this and i tell her that.  she wants to add to her answer about why she keeps going.  for highland kites, she says they actually truly love people.  and carrying that burden of responsibility is refreshing, but it also is hard sometimes.  she explains what she means by diving in more to her creative process.

"everything i do carries this weight of like 'how is this going to help someone? is this going to help someone?' you know what i mean?

and it's not like a wanting to be liked.  it's like, the way that you change the world is by touching individuals, and inspiring individuals.  so, is what we are making going to do that? and having enough care in your art and taking the time in your art to make sure what you're making is going to do that.  on whatever scale. and that's really important to us because we want to help people, we want the world to be a better place. and not in a cliche 'we're making music so we can save the world!' you know what i mean? it's not that!" she's laughing again.”

"we're making music so we can help people.  and change people. and people are what change the society.  so, we don't make things lightly. like 'oh, we can just say whatever we want.'  i mean you can, but it's not like we could be destructive or promote a bad message or just be like 'blearhaggg' all over our social media about negative crap.  because i'm always thinking 'how do i want to make somebody feel? is that gonna help someone?' it's that type of process that goes into our art - 'cool, so by the end of this song i want someone to feel like their demons have slightly less impact over them.  so how am i going to do that?' it's that constant creative process of figuring that out."

i ask how that affects their ep about to be released called "better off."  after hearing so much of what goes into their music, i want to know the story behind this selection of songs.

"we're gonna be releasing this one in kind of a weird way.  instead of releasing the ep, we're gonna release a song a month until the ep is out and then it will be an ep on all the streaming platforms and we'll have physical copies."

she talks of the creative process, and why this exact set of songs.

"i wrote this set of songs about letting go of toxic relationships and thinking patterns and toxic people, and learning to grow from those experiences.  so every song sort of flows into the next in terms of that message.”

"it starts off super direct with 'better off' - 'i'm better off without you' - but then it tells a story of going through what happens when you lose somebody.  what happens when you find yourself completely engrossed with people or a person who is sucking all of your light out? it's the realizations that come to that, and then trying to escape from that, and everything you go through, and then by the end of the ep, which is 'marionette' you have the full growth that happens - coming to the conclusion at the end."

"i probably just way over explained that!" she laughs.  but she didn't and, just like her music, and her overall vibe in all of this, it is just an unpretentious and honest depiction of a well-thought and intentional work of art.

she says she wanted it to be an emotional experience.

"i kinda want it to have this set of realizing that you have all this happening, and then going through all the emotions of 'wait don't leave!'  i mean, we all go through that - 'wait, you're bad for me, but i want you here!' you're going through that pattern of 'i'm nothing without you' and then coming out the other end of 'wait a minute, i just had to learn how to love and respect myself in order to get out of this mindset.’ so the time period of my life when i really had to do for myself, is when all these songs are about. we had a bunch of songs that we could write, but these were curated, and flow with that message."

as with the rest of her art, the ep is deliberate, with a specific message.  i ask her if there is a specific overarching message she has in mind when she creates, or does it depend on the song?

"i think it does depend on the song, but i do want people to realize that specifically for this set of songs, i really want people to realize that they're a lot stronger, and more capable than they previously thought."

"it's sort of like these sad, melancholic pep talks."

we both laugh as the words fall between us.

"it's like a melancholic pep talk, that ends in these feelings of hope."  she solidifies the concept.

"maybe better worded would be 'a knowing that things are gonna be better.'

she knows that everyone listening to it is essentially going to get something out that's unique to them. so, she doesn't want to instill messages into people, “you have to get this out of it or otherwise you're not getting it.  because someone might get something totally different and that's fine. that's why i feel weird sometimes when someone asks me 'what is this song about?' i get kind of antsy! i don't want to ruin the experience for you! i don't want to tell you what it's about and then you listen to it and the magic that you had and what you thought it was about for you is now gone."

it is hard to listen to her and not feel a deep respect for not only her integrity as an artist, but the love and respect she has for the people who listen to her songs, and how important it is to her that her message be clearly articulated.

i go back to an old standard, and ask her if there is anything she wished i had asked her, and what would that answer be?

"i don't know. i really want to make sure, because obviously there's gonna be other artists who read these interviews and i think for me it's important to encourage other people to create.”

"i really want to imbue in every artist that what they're doing is SO important.  and that this world needs their art and to just not give up. and i really, truly believe that. it's not just something that i say just because whatever.  i really, truly believe that this planet needs as much art as we can possibly imbue into it.  and i've been in situations where it's freaking HARD, and you wonder 'is this even worth it? does anyone even care about what i'm doing or saying??' you can get into these sort of situations where you feel like maybe it's just not even worth doing. but, i just want to encourage people to do it. and make sure everyone knows, artists know that what they're doing is so important.


“i really want to imbue in every artist that what they're doing is SO important. and that this world needs their art and to just not give up.”

"if i could like grab people by the face and just be like 'what you're doing is so important. don't give up!' because you have no idea - sometimes it takes a lifetime of work to create a piece of work that changes the entire world.”

"so if you give up before you make that, you're doing a huge disservice to yourself, and the entire world.  it's sort of that idea of 'just keep going! keep dreaming! keep creating!' and what it is you're trying to do will happen.  sometimes it takes time. and you have to be willing to let it take time.

"something that i don't know if i mentioned, you know how i said just like trust the process of it? it sort of ties into that.  because, one - trust the process, two - enjoy every phase that you're in, enjoy it because once it's gone you're gonna look back on it and be like 'oh that was fun!' when you were like driving around in a beat up car, sleeping on floors.

"all of that is actually fun!  and it's amazing that we're able to communicate the way that we actually can and we're able to make whatever art that we want to make! you know, it's incredible. it's important what we're doing - it's like this weird balance of knowing how important it is and being serious about your goals and making it happen, but remaining completely unserious.  

"just like, being flippant and enjoying yourself and having fun with it and laughing."