💬#FMFINTERVIEW: A Q & A WITH CUSI COYLLUR
Cusi Coyllur is the musical undertaking of L.A. based artist, Shannen Roberts. She is a vocalist, songwriter, keyboardist, activist, and all around amazing human being. For the past while she has been working hard along side producers Bill Lefler and her brother Kevin Roberts to complete her album, ‘Bipolar Lovers In Love’, which is due for release in 2017. Drawing inspiration from Fiona Apple, Amanda Palmer, Bjork, and St. Vincent, the album explores Roberts’ own experiences in managing anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and destructive relationships. In addition to her musical endeavors, Shannen is also the founder of a self-help blog and guide entitled ‘The Strange Is Beautiful‘. She has recently released her debut music video for her wonderful track, ‘Woke Up From a Lazy Dream’. The video, seen below, is a visualization intent on reproducing the feelings of experiencing a panic attack first hand. Shannen is currently fundraising to create a second dance-centric music video with the aim of raising awareness about domestic awareness. The video will be accompanied by a series of monthly articles on domestic violence which is planned to include interviews with social workers, women’s centres and experts on the topic of domestic abuse. You can help by donating here. We had the opportunity to chat with Shannen about her music, tearing apart stigmas, and pushing through ‘mind obstacles’.
I read that the video for “Woke Up From a Lazy Dream” was intended to emulate the feelings of experiencing a panic attack. In what ways do you feel that was achieved?
It never feels like I’m in control of my body or my thoughts when I have a panic attack and it’s as if someone else has entered my body and is forcing it to shake, hyperventilate, scream etc. The character of the marionette in my music video metaphorically displays these sensations and symbolizes myself having a panic attack.
In a blog post I made about “Woke Up From a Lazy Dream,” I detail the meaning of the five characters in my music video; the illusion, the fool, the movement, the narrator and the marionette. For the marionette I explained, “The marionette is the fool being controlled by demons that cause nightmarish out of body experiences when worrying about their terrible life decisions.” Those nightmarish out of body experiences are my panic attacks.
The other four characters in the music video also depict my panic attacks. The fool represents myself (and my high school friends lulzzz) in present reality, a party girl avoiding adult responsibilities. The illusion appears as a queen and warns the fool that this mind-altered beauty of the queen and the dreamy beach scene is not reality and that the fool is in danger. The movement, the three dancers, tries to help the fool make good decisions while the narrator tells the story from an alternate universe where the fool has already doomed the world. Later in the music video the narrator, the queen and the fool all experience feelings of terror and panic as if their worlds are colliding and they are becoming one person fighting to see which world is the true reality. I did this to show how confusing it is in the midst of a panic attack and how it actually feels like I am fighting to come back to Earth.
Lastly, in the actual song, I added cries to represent myself crying for help during a panic attack. I didn’t want it to sound too real, mostly because I didn’t want anything to be too triggering and because I wanted the song to sound like a dream.
Can we talk a bit about your replacing the term “mental illness” with “mind obstacles”?
Mental illness has a terrible history, I don’t like continuing to use terms or words that have such heavy negative baggage. Might as well change the term or word instead of trying to “reclaim” it because in my opinion, it still hurts even after a term is supposedly “reclaimed” and still holds stigma to others who do not know that the term is now “reclaimed” or redefined. In yoga we talk a lot about “obstacles of the mind stuff” as said by the sage Patanjali. I LOVED hearing that phrase because it made me realize that EVERYONE has obstacles of the mind at varying levels and degrees. This makes everyone the same, it levels the playing field for those that feel alone. Just because someone doesn’t have clinical depression, doesn’t mean they’ve never felt sad or depressed and can’t relate to someone with clinical depression. I get extremely annoyed and hurt when people blame how I feel on my depression or my anxiety because they are invalidating my feelings and implying that my feelings are invalid because I have a “mental illness.” This is why I changed the term completely to mind obstacles because EVERYONE has mind obstacles and therefore everyone’s feelings are valid and should be talked through to understand fully instead of pushed aside or ignored.
What is the significance of the title of your self-help guide, “The Strange is Beautiful”?
My best friend in elementary school and I were not popular at all, we were the weird kids. Dark haired, white-skinned Latinas wearing long knee-high socks in summer, we were made fun of for our unibrows, mustaches, arm and leg hair. My bff didn’t speak English when she first came here in the 4th grade, so we’d bond silently over our little sandwiches at lunch or with oreos and milk at her house. As she was learning English, there were a few things that she said that stuck with me, one of them being when someone at school called us weird, she smoothly said back “weird is cool.” Later at a park she said that the strange is beautiful and it helped me get through a lot as a kid and even today it still helps me. People fear things they do not understand and what is interesting about that is people assume that they are the “normal” one and the “right” one, which makes it easy to point fingers at other people who are different than themselves. No one is “normal.” We all have different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. I created the name The Strange is Beautiful in hopes of promoting a culture that desires to learn about each other, about things we do not understand and about each other’s triggers so we can all be tactful and respectful of each other and be able to communicate and love all beings for all things that are different than ourselves.
As a person whose dealt first hand with the struggles of anxiety and depression, what is the best advice you could give someone who might be feeling hopeless?
Set small goals and never quit trying. At least once a week there’s a day where I can’t get out of bed. It’s physically draining to do simple tasks like get up to go to the bathroom or walk downstairs to eat food. I have those thoughts of “this isn’t worth it,” “no one understands me,” “I hate myself” and “can I quit everything and die” a lot. I cry a lot. But I’m also very productive once I push through. Here’s what I usually do:
1. First, I let myself feel utterly sad.
On my The Strange is Beautiful blog I promote allowing yourself to feel sad with Sadcore Sundays where I post a sad song that people can cry to while they cuddle their blankets in fetal in their bed or possibly on the floor because it was too draining to get into bed. I use this concept for myself. When I feel tinges of depression that I know I can overcome with funny memes, playing music, dance or yoga then I’ll do those self-care methods to get past it. But if it’s overwhelming, then I sometimes let it hit me like a truck. It’s super scary and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a day or two, but it’s the best feeling once I’ve gotten past feeling super depressed, to super numb and confused, to feeling ready to be productive. Sort of what happened today to get myself to write this interview. I’ve been hella stoked to answer these questions but tonight was the first night that I was physically able to be productive in a few days. At this first super ultra sad stage, I vent A LOT to people I trust. I call, Facebook message or text people to let them know I’m not feeling good and if they have the time to hear me out, cheer me up or visit me, I’d appreciate their help.
I do movement of some sort to reset my physical body to replenish my emotional and mental bodies. Yoga (including meditation and pranayama), walking or hiking, dance and self-massage with tennis balls work for me. Fresh air and movement are huge to reset my energy.
3. Set goals.
I start with setting a small goal when I’m still in the climax of my depression such as, I’m going to nap for one hour then actually go to class. As I enter the numbness and confusion state, I set another goal to stop hating whatever I was hating or to change my perspective. I usually vent again to someone at this point seeking validation of my new perspective. Then I make a plan for “what do I want to do today?” I ask myself what will be healthiest for me tonight, what will make me feel good. Once I start to feel better, I set the final goals of things I actually need to do: laundry, cooking, cleaning, homework, recording, booking, clipping my nails lulzzzz, blogging, creating new PR plans for my blog and music, scheduling in friends and more movement. I talk about this more in a zine I made for The Strange is Beautiful of my story, if you want a copy lmk 🙂
You are currently fundraising for a project set to raise awareness for domestic abuse through the production of an interpretive
dance music video and a monthly series of articles. Why is domestic abuse awareness an important cause for you?
Several people who are very close to my heart experienced domestic abuse, many of whom only confided in me and did not wish to tell anyone else. It made me ANGRY to hear my loved ones go through pain caused by another being and why they could not leave or why they were powerless. I didn’t realize how common domestic abuse is and with the rise of the terrible, revolting, disturbing, frightening Trump presidency, it is CRUCIAL to spread awareness that domestic abuse is NEVER OKAY. Also, many of my loved ones were afraid to share their stories, which makes complete sense because our judicial system for domestic abuse and sexual violence is totally fucked. I wanted to give voice to those that are afraid to speak and to those that cannot speak anymore because they died before they could speak out.
I myself have never experienced domestic abuse first hand, which is the main reason I’m doing a monthly series of articles. As a journalist, if I have not experienced something first hand, I like to make sure I know as much as possible about the subject I am covering through interviews and research.
Also, I have discussed in depth with the choreographer and the other person who will be dancing with me about their connection to this cause. Alex Floyd, director and founder of OdDancity, revealed she had a friend who was sexually assaulted and then killed. Skai Johnson, the other person who will be dancing, and I both have experienced toxic relationships, but none that led to domestic abuse which makes us wonder “what if that happened to us?” We will all be drawing from our past experiences and our loved ones’ stories to create this piece and make it as meaningful, emotional and beautiful as possible.
What else can you share about the potential music video for “amivulnerable?” ?
“amivulnerable?” will be completely different than “Woke Up From a Lazy Dream.” It will involve no makeup, simple costumes (probably just jeans and a shirt), will take place in one empty room with blank walls and will be an all dance music video but this time, it won’t be hip hop, it will be interpretive and modern dance. We will be emphasizing the feeling of numbness that comes after trauma, how trauma sucks out a person’s life force and makes it difficult to do daily activities. It will show how this feeling of numbness causes people to stay silent because they are trying their hardest to pretend the event never happened or because it is too emotionally hard or dangerous to say anything. I will be drawing from my worst episodes of depression, my worst feelings of numbness post-panic attacks and my worst relationship where I felt numb for months before finally, thanks to the push from friends, finally broke up with them. The music video will be extremely hard for me to make because I sort of practice method acting, where during the time period of rehearsals and shooting, I put myself in that pain and let it consume my body so I can display the story as honestly as possible.
It would seem destroying stigmas is a vital part of your lifestyle. What other societal stigmas would you like to take down and how would you execute this?
Wow that is a big question holyshit there are so many stigmas I want to take down, but I’m only one person so I try my best to address stigmas that trigger me the most. Having grown up Mormon (I haven’t been religious since fourth grade haha), I have strong feelings about breaking stigmas against women, such as the pros and the scientific cons rather than religious propaganda of birth control, and stigmas of masculinity and femininity. I have an interview of Holly Grigg-Spall, author of “Sweetening the Pill” about birth control waiting to be published on my The Strange is Beautiful blog once I gather enough research. I still have to think how to combat masculinity and femininity stigmas more, though I did get the chance to share my story on how body hair is neither masculine nor feminine in the 2nd issue of my friend Jen Venegas’s zine “Hairy Femme Mother”
Another stigma that I’d like to address is of immigrants because my mom and her side of the family are immigrants from Peru. To start, I just recently interviewed my mom’s mom about her story living in a small village in Peru and why she wanted her family to come to the United States.
Basically the stigmas I want to tackle are stigmas that I fear will be in the forefront for the next four years during Trump’s presidency…
Next year you will release your debut album “Bipolar Lovers In Love.” What can you tell us about the album?
“Bipolar Lovers in Love” is a memory of my worst anxiety, depression and panic attacks while coping with destructive relationships with others, music and myself. It’s a tribute to friends who also struggle with those issues and a proud reflection of how far I’ve come with yoga and The Strange is Beautiful to learn self-care, self-love and improve communication with others. It serves as a reminder that darkness can (and will) come again, but now I have tools to help me through it.
I hope the whole album will start a conversation on what is a healthy relationship, is a relationship necessary to be happy and on other controversial subjects such as teen use of drugs and alcohol, why people steal and queer identity.
The teen use of drugs and alcohol is what I want to talk more about regarding “Woke Up From a Lazy Dream,” I’m just still figuring out the best way to go about it, but it’s definitely a huge part of the meaning of the song. It’s weird, that song is about so many things. It’s almost a summary of the whole album.
In all honesty, I wrote “Woke Up From a Lazy Dream” when I had woken up after some muscle relaxers had worn off (I took them for back spasms and still take them for neck pain due to whiplash). I woke up with a similar lazy feeling of how I used to feel after waking up still high from the weed I’d smoked the night before. It made me worry about the person I was dating at that time and yet sympathize with their struggle to quit smoking and drinking, it had become a deterrent in their life. I saw myself in their struggles and remembered all the panic attacks I had coming off cigarettes and pot and alcohol all at once when I was super addicted to it all. It took me until I wrote “amivulnerable?” to realize that yes it was good that I could see myself in my bae’s addiction struggles, but it was not good for me to stay with that person because they were abusing my help and lying to me.
“Woke Up From a Lazy Dream” is also a reflection song of all the kids I met at a music school one summer, some of which revealed they had tried several times to commit suicide, or were extremely depressed and took many drugs to cope and because, why not?
The whole album will close with two beautiful awakening song’s called “Grow” and “Society Says I’m Depressed Cuz I’m Single.” “Grow” is a realization that I am my own person, my past experiences do not need to define me and I deserve the best as does everyone else. “Society Says I’m Depressed Cuz I’m Single” wards off the stigma that one must be married with kids to be happy, explores my queer identity and ultimately, is a discovery of a new love and acceptance for myself.
All but one of the singles on your forthcoming album were produced by your brother, Kevin. Being a big brother myself, I wondered if you’ve always gotten along to the point of being able to manage a working relationship?
We have definitely NOT gotten along our whole life hahahaha. We are extremely different people with very big, intense emotions. It took a long time for us to figure out how to communicate with each other, and we still have days where we yell at each other and have to take a sort of “time-out” away from the studio. He’s my producer, I’m the artist, but he’s also my brother and I’m his sister so there’s two dynamics we have to work with in the studio and that can be difficult.
We were in a band together in my first year and a half of college called GrowYoung which ended for many reasons, one of which, in my opinion, was that we needed time away from each other to grow up. I didn’t think my brother would ever want to work with me on my songs, we weren’t on the best terms for a while and were giving each other space to heal. We had done so much music together at that point – from GrowYoung in college, to my brother lugging our PA system and endless cords twice a month for lunch shows at my high school for the music club I founded, to recording and playing my songs at record stores, to recording sessions for Hal Leonard when we were eight – we needed a break from each other. But then he needed an internship to graduate from music college so I recommended him to Bill who had produced my first song. Out of curiosity my brother asked how I knew Bill, heard the song Bill produced for me and said he wanted to produce me. I was skeptical and worried to work with him again because I didn’t want us to have a toxic dynamic.
Through working together again on my songs over the past two years, we’ve developed a new understanding for each other by setting boundaries, explaining each other’s triggers and giving each other space to be angry and then talking about it. We’ve grown over these last two years to be able to healthily work with each other to create beautiful, purposeful music as producer and artist and a new love for each other as brother and sister.
What is your favourite music video of all-time and why?
Soooooooooooo I don’t have a favorite music video hehe. I’d say some of my favorites are The Dresden Dolls’s “Girl Anachronism,” Thom Yorke’s “Lotus Flower,” Atoms for Peace’s “Ingenue,” Tune-Yards “Bizness” and this might sound super awful and mainstream of me but I loved Beyonce’s “Lemonade” music video.
Clearly I’m a fan of music videos involving dance, and The Dresden Dolls’s music video is so theatrical (I liveeee for theatrics) and relatable, it’s how I fell in love with Amanda Palmer’s music.
Thom Yorke’s “Lotus Flower” and Atoms for Peace’s “Ingenue” were choreographed by one of my favorite choreographers Wayne McGregor. If you get a chance to check out his TED Talk called “A choreographer’s creative process in real time” it will inspire you to dance. He believes that all people who say “I can’t dance” need to give it a try and shows how anyone can dance in their own way to release negative energy and to express their feelings.
The little kids in Tune-Yards’s “Bizness” get me. I’m a sucker for kids. They’re so cute how can you not be? I loveeeee the genuine and age appropriate choreography she gave the kids and how colorful the whole music video is.
Beyonce’s visual album for “Lemonade” is a masterpiece of choreography and editing. I’m not a huge fan of the music to be honest, but I can’t deny the artistry in the dancing parts of the music videos. However, at the point that she starts going back to Jay Z, I tune out. But damn the first part of “Lemonade” is beautifully crafted. I’d love to make a sort of movie to my album like she did one day.