Happy Rhodes: "My Whole Thing Is the Quest for Genius"
Enigmatic vocalist Happy Rhodes who blurs lines between dream pop and progressive rock talks about her earliest recordings and beating back rejection and loneliness through art.
The Numero Group
Stalwart appreciators of the obscure and underappreciated, the Numero Group announced earlier in 2018 that it was issuing Ectotrophia, a compilation featuring the earliest recordings of vocalist Happy Rhodes. Rhodes, for the uninitiated, emerged from New York state in the 1980s via a series of cassettes that made their way into circles of music obsessives who quickly declared their devotion to the vocalists four octave voice and singular musings.
Some are tempted to draw parallels between Kate Bush and Toyah Wilcox but Rhodes' songwriting and vision were arguably more in the realm of dream pop than progressive rock. If she did intersect either of those artists, it was in being a vocalist who tapped into something that existed outside geography, outside specific genre and tapped into the point where childlike wonder intersects with adult knowing.
The Numero release features material culled from the vocalist's first four cassettes, music made in her youth and at a time when she wasn't really aiming to make albums. Tracked in the mid to late '80s this material still sounds like it was made at least five years into the future. As ever, the packaging from Numero features painstakingly detailed liner notes (courtesy Erin Osmon) and remastering that crackles with vibrancy.
Rhodes remains an enigmatic figure. Live performances as a solo artist are a rare commodity. She lives on a farm somewhere in the higher elevations of Upstate New York, occasionally venturing out to work with the Security Project, a band formed in order to shed light on some of the more obscure corners of Peter Gabriel's discography and features in its ranks onetime Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta, ex-King Crimson man Trey Gunn and Michael Cozzi (ex-Shriekback).
Rhodes warms to conversation and its telling that her loudest laughter and most apparent joy comes when her interviewer discusses living among cat toys rather than stereo equipment. She doesn't maintain an online presence though fans are more than pleased to maintain a website and at least one Facebook group in her honor. Somehow it seems appropriate that she allows those on the outside to champion her legacy.
How did this project with the Numero Group come about?
I have really no idea. It certainly didn't come from me. I just got a call or probably an email one day from the label saying, "We're interested in doing this compilation of your early works. What do you think?" It was a shock. It kind of came out of left field. I'd never heard of the label before, surprisingly. I was honored. I really liked the way they presented it to me. They said, "We're a label about shedding light on artists that have gone otherwise unheralded." I definitely had a very quiet career. So, I thought it was lovely.
Did you select the material or did they have specific things in mind?
They offered me total say. They were so lovely about it. I, for the most part, declined. I felt it would be more interesting to have them autonomous. As a result there were a lot of songs that I would have never chosen in a million years. I think that's a good thing.
It's sounds strange to say but we're not always the best people to ask about our best work.
Exactly. You're too close. I've got my favorite songs and if it were up to me I would have put all my favorite songs on there. That doesn't mean it would have been fully representative of my early work. So, in that sense, they did a great job.
I'm guessing that you weren't sitting around and listening to those early recordings once a week. When the project came up did you go back and listen?
When I was interviewed for the liner notes, I was asked very specific questions about very specific songs. "What was the inspiration behind it? What were you going through at the time?" It was painful not but not emotionally. It was painful in the sense that I just could not remember. It was so, so long ago. And you're right to assume that I don't listen to my own music, let alone the earliest, earliest stuff of my own music. It was a task to re-educate myself by listening to all that old stuff. I had to try and conjure up, "What was I thinking at that time? What was I feeling?"
I managed to dredge up some stuff but it was really, really difficult.
Were there moments of recognition. "Oh, I thought I was writing about this but I was actually writing about that"?
There are moments where I can surmise what I was going through at the time. There are some songs that are sort of relationship related that are kind of obvious. Music was always first and then the lyrics. Talking to people is not my thing and that's what lyrics are. You're singing what you're feeling. You could be a singer without words but I chose to be one who used them so I would have to say, "What does this music mean to me? What is it conjuring?" I can't always stand behind my lyrics but it is accurate to say that they do reflect what I was going through at the time.
Where did this impulse to release music first come from?
The reason it all worked out the way it did is actually because I didn't have any plans on putting my music out there. As I was writing music I was not thinking in terms of, "I'm going to put these out as an album and I'm going to get a record deal!" It would be going too far to say that it never occurred to me but it certainly was not my plan. I was more about just creating it, just writing it. It was like a contest with myself. I just had to keep searching for bits of music that would move me. That's what it was all about for me, music that would move me. It was a never-ending search.
The process of putting everything down on tape was at the urging of others. What a blessing that was.
There's that cliché about making the music you want to hear or painting the picture you want to see but we're all there at some point.
It may sound simplistic to say it that way but I think that is the bottom line. I think it's a leap of faith that we're all connected. I guess I always figured that if something moved me, surely it would move someone else. If you move one person on this planet, that's a job well done.
What happens once you start putting this music down on tape and it enters the world. How does it find an audience?
That's the funny thing about creativity and our place on earth. When you create things it never lands in a void. It's always going to find its way to people. No matter what. I really believe that. I was lucky that I drew people into my life who were extremely eager to help. I am notoriously bad at self-promotion. People get very upset at me about this. But my entire life I have been surrounded by people who have just gone above and beyond to help me in that respect.
There was Kevin Bartlett who heard my material and said, "People need to hear this. This is just stupid." I had already been putting it down on tape for posterity but then he would say, "Let's start spreading it around."
You put it on a little cassette and you give it to one person. If that person likes it, it's kind of snowball from there.
Where did the music really start to take flight?
We were selling the cassettes at arts and crafts fairs. Someone gave one of my cassettes to a woman in Kansas City, Vickie Williams, who just happened to have a show based on the music of Kate Bush and other female artists of that time. Well-known female artists, I think. She got ahold of my tape and she immediately started playing it. That was kind of the beginning of the end. She was responsible for a grass roots expansion.
Publicity photo via Bandcamp
It seems like the progressive rock community has embraced you. That's a community that's loyal. Once you're in you're in.
If that's the case I'm very happy about that because that's the community that I feel I belong in an as a listener. For me as an artist being thought of fondly in that community is a great honor. I don't know how that happened but I'm glad.
As you started getting airplay did you start to feel like you should do more recording or was it, again, a matter of people urging you on?
I wasn't really paying attention. It had its own life. It did what it did quietly. Under the radar. I just kept what I was doing. I was recording, recording, recording and writing and writing. The first album that I recorded as an album specifically was Warpaint. By that point it was time because I had started to get a sense that there was an audience for it and I had had personal phone calls with Vickie Williams. I was pretty encouraged at that point. That was 1991. So this movement had been going on for a few years.
How did things change?
The approach was markedly different. Now you're not doing an aria, you're doing an opera. You have to look at a bigger picture which is fun. And challenging. Especially when you're a young person. It's like, "Wow! I can control this whole thing! This whole package!" I don't know how well I did it but it certainly was fun. To say that it informed the writing is partly true. I still wrote the songs as individual songs, not thinking, "Oh, they have to fit with all these others songs now because it's all going to go on an album." I didn't really feel that way. But I did feel that it was time to grow up a little bit and pay a little more attention and craft the songs and finish them and make sure that they had form and structure and all that. I really didn't do that much for the first four releases because they were compilation-style albums where I said, "These are my songs. I'm going to shove them together and put it out there."
There was never any discipline to it because the way that my creativity worked in my youth it was fast, fast, fast. "I put that idea down. I kind of accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. I'm bored with it now, let's move on. Next thing!"
When you listen back are there things that are maybe not technically correct but you hear them and say, "That's great," or do you say, "I should have fixed that"?
I feel both of those things. My whole thing is about the quest for genius, knowing that I'm never going to attain it. Genius is purely subjective. For me, it's that one snippet, I don't care if it's that one part of a musical idea that actually makes my heart stop beating for a moment. That's what I'm searching for. That's what has moved me in other peoples' work, whether it's visual art or music. That's what I've always strived for.
So, when I look back to my early stuff, stuff that I wrote when I was very, very young, I'm able to recognize moments of genius. Just for me, my personal taste. I do get a little pang of, "Gee, I wish I had worked that more. I wish I had worked that idea to its completion." Instead, I was impatient and wanted to move on.
Do you feel like you became less prolific and started to pay more attention to form, etc.?
I definitely became less prolific but it wasn't because I needed to pay more attention to the finer details of form and structure. I became less prolific because I started growing out the need for the battle. Yes, I was a very creative person and I may have created regardless of how I grew up but I also had to prove something to the world. I had to prove that I could be useful. That I was worth something because I was told otherwise. My entire youth was colored with rejection. So, I had a battle to fight. It was like I said, "I'm not worthless. I can do some things well and I can contribute. And I'm going to prove it to the world."
As you grow older you learn that you don't have to prove that anymore. You get a little bit of grace. That's the reason I became less prolific.
For me, creativity was and is also an extension of loneliness.
You make your own friends and your own little inner world to survive emotionally.
Your music has a strong visual component to it.
At the truest level it's not that I consciously intended it. It makes sense that it would evoke visuals for people because that is where I came from. My father was a visual artist and I also inherited that trait from him. I had musical and artistic ability. I've always been moved by the visual. There was also dance in my life. I've always been a loner, I've always been alone in so many senses of the word. Movies have been something that I've immersed myself in. I've always been influenced very deeply by certain films. It's being influenced by other peoples' art. So it does make sense that there is a visual aspect to my music.
How did the emergence of the online world impact you in the mid-late 1990s?
I was still a neophyte then. I didn't know how it worked. I didn't completely comprehend it. I didn't participate in it. I stayed in my world and kept doing what I was doing. I would hear feedback after the fact. But I also found out about radio. Airplay became a powerful tool. I'd never had it before the '90s. So, "Feed the Fire", a song from Warpaint, started getting play on WXPN in Philadelphia. I don't even know how they even got their hands on it but it became the No.1 most requested song of that year on that station. Other stations around the country would get their hands on this, that or the other thing.
Before that there had been small college stations here and there. They were playing music from the cassettes early on. That was a huge bump as well as the Internet.
Do you listen to a lot of music in your day-to-day life?
I really don't. I know that surprises people sometimes. I don't always have to have music playing in the background. I know some people who are like that. The second they get in their homes they pop music on. Their music. It always has to be with them. I heard that peoples' musical taste stagnates around age 30. What you like is what you like. That certainly has proven to be true with me.
I do like hearing new things but I don't go looking to hear new things.
How did the other members of the Security Project lure you into joining?
I don't think they had to do a lot of luring, surprisingly. You couldn't get me to tour for my own music to save my life but when they asked me I said, "Sure! That sounds like fun!" It was a challenge. I've always been the girl on the periphery of prog music. To have somebody say to me, "Would you like to be the lead singer working with these other incredible musicians in a band that is going to be honoring the music of Peter Gabriel?" How do you say no to that? If they had asked me six months before that I probably, out of sheer fear, would have said no. "I can't do that! You got the wrong person!" But I was feeling particularly bold that month.