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Natural Sympathies Shares THE ALIEN PRACTICE OF HUMANNESS

A while back I reached out to Saskatchewan fantasy-pop artist, Natural Sympathies, (human name: Amber Goodwyn) to ask if she would be interested in working on this article. At the same time, I was in a place of acute life renewal. My efforts extended to examining the dynamics and substance of my most important relationships for a more “porous” and imaginative reality to inhabit.

The reasons for this of course are personal. My art, writing and general way of being most frequently and intentionally draws from the personal as a place of lift-off, so it makes sense to me that a life that generates these touchpoints reflect this alignment. During this reflective period I was listening to some tracks by Natural Sympathies and I felt compelled to write about her work for two reasons:  I am a great fan of her art, which I will describe as an expansive theatre using the power of the senses that I can both groove and think with. 

On a more personal note, I am intimately familiar with her place of residence that is also my home province of Saskatchewan. I thought I would enjoy her perspective of the prairie landscape and some of the music being created on its vast horizontal floor. Like all geographies, Saskatchewan has its own distinct characteristics. Additionally, the multidisciplinary synthesis of fantasy and humanness that is Natural Sympathies opens up a meditation on the romantic notion of artists living in their own deviceful worlds – epochs apart from our real-life matrix. 

For many (present company included), these distinct worlds feel like a way to survive. In this time of a global pandemic, does creative refuge become a specialized survival skill?  In Amber Goodwyn’s case, we get a sense the artist beclouds her lived realities, both on and off stage, compounding theatre, family, the avant-garde, audio, performance, feminism, visual language and intimate communities. 

Present day:  I sit in a spare room in my place in downtown Toronto, staring out the window at the vacant metropolitan cityscape that COVID-19 has ushered us into. Here in my domestic silo I am hyper-aware of the silence and urban void of the fourth largest city in North America. My partner is in the room next to me working from her desk, and my aging cats are seemingly unaffected but happier that we are spending more time at home. This article is one of few remnants that resembles what my typical life and its pursuits, and pursuits of pursuits once were, only a few weeks ago.

In our household, we seem to have adapted to a modified world of our own; it is a balancing act of world updates, humor, radical acceptance of uncertainty, reading and varied projects – all of which are subject to the effect of our global situation in one way or another (this article included).  I will disclose that I should have started writing this last week, though some deadlines momentarily feel more like plasticine as opposed to concrete. As I stare down at the grey, desolate backdrop of Spadina Avenue through my window, cushioned between two buildings, my thoughts turn to artists and their unique imaginative worlds, and how this external viral authority enters/alters the patina of our culture-makers. 

I think of Natural Sympathies, and how her debut seven-track release “Porous” and its short accompanying episodic video provide the ideal entry-point for such a discussion, or perhaps vice versa. Interchangeably, there’s a hard line drawn between our current moment and the abstract geometry of Natural Sympathies’ debut LP, “Porous”. On Track 7 titled: “The Hard Line”, the artist robotically enunciates:

“I like a hard line. A triangle. An isosceles.  And all those other triangle shapes”. 

Geometry and geography. In a geometric sense from an aerial view, Saskatchewan appears as a quadrilateral – a rectangular shape wider at the base and narrow at the top, as if it’s head were pinched. As mentioned, Natural Sympathies operates via Saskatchewan (Regina) though her history locates her in previous hubs of belonging.

“I grew up in the Bahamas, moved to Montreal as a pre-teen and moved around a lot there and then moved to Saskatchewan about eight year ago. My sense of where ‘home’ is fluid and also central to many of the stories and questions I have about myself.”  

Saskatchewan has its own musical history grounded in roots and folk music. At its own pace, the artistic tapestry of Saskatchewan joins a world trending toward a general appreciation and application of fluidity in taste, genre, ideas and approaches in making – a growing porousness that is increasingly attractive and available to artists poised to renew and reimagine traditional style, piloting new ways of identifying the pool of provincial DNA.  

“It’s super interesting to me how each city has its own musical trends and traditions. Saskatchewan has a lot of roots-inspired music and singer-songwriter powerhouses as well as rad bands playing garage and punk music, among other genres of course. I’ve been thinking more about traditional music since moving here and have been appreciating the nuances and musicianship of the expert players I’ve met.”

Goodwyn’s willingness to admit the passage of poly-genre influence through her creative interstices is evidenced in “Porous”. Recently I grazed through the hypnotic portal of Track 6 titled “Come What May”. Instantly I felt the jungle shades of percussion with their deep-reaching minimalist exactitude transport me to a place in my imagination, far from the new world order of COVID-19. I might also credit the steam in my bathroom rising from the hot Epsom salt bath I was enjoying at that time.

Nonetheless, there I was in some perfectly haze-veiled, otherworldly atmosphere, both ancient and futuristic in its audio arrangement. Dense vegetation filled with curved jungle plants, holographic geometry; pale blue creatures of some extraterrestrial diaspora; a lurking sense of familiarity and newness. I feel a great sense of community and belonging to the neo-sci-fi audio blanket of Natural Sympathies, reminding me that sometimes the symbols of a new world offers a sense of elusive nostalgia and belonging that supersedes the normalcy of a structure we have previously become accustomed to.  It is the bones of utopian appeal. In many ways this is a feeling many of us are being nudged into as week after week of COVID-19 normalizes our prolonged domestic lockdown, for better or worse.

The title “Come What May” rings true to this reflection in this time of heightened uncertainty, and we all share the sketchy satellite signal prompting us to fortune-tell. Our imaginations can be our best friend or our worst enemy, and what does come … may challenge or affirm what our imaginations conjure. We share this as a global community and in the midst of it all — I immerse myself within the atmosphere of Natural Sympathies’ intermixed universe, echoing loudly within the acoustics of my downtown Toronto bathroom.

I’ll briefly provide a cul de sac in this article to explore a hunch of mine.  I suspect that artists possess a reflexive advantage in such dramas as a global pandemic. In some regard, many of us are accustomed to disruption by attending residencies or exhibitions held in strange and new places where we willingly invite environmental flux.  It is in these fluctuating circumstances that our craft is perhaps our sole refuge of familiarity.  We dream of significant, pregnant moments for art-making.  We dream in general. Plenty of us function as hyper-sensitive and emotionally charged people compared to for example, more prudent agents of being within the comfort of their own rational, familiar world.

Perhaps we live in less fear of discombobulating and disruption because in many ways we practice and experience these things daily with our respective artistic pursuits.  We seek communities and microcosms that support and validate how we are in the world. Our efforts and conversations within these networks ultimately engender a wider collective community and sense of belonging, even when faced with dramatic changes in the tide. We are a community that continually embraces uncertainty. 

Community is certainly an integral ingredient in the extraterrestrial outfit of Natural Sympathies.  A short film was created along with the audio for “Porous”. For this visual supplement, the artist enlisted the vision of seven different video makers – Adrienne Adams, Ian Campbell, Eric Hill, Elian Mikkola, Mike Rollo, Evie Ruddy + Kyath Battie and Ania Slusarczyk. Each contributor responded with his or her interpretation to a song on the album using the moving image. Goodwyn contextualizes the project:

“A feminist sci-fi narrative about an extraterrestrial named Natural Sympathies whose spaceship crashes on Earth, and her ensuing journey to fix and fuel it before ultimately discovering that she has everything she needs and wants (a safe and loving community) right where she landed.”

Goodwyn’s multi-universe and community-building approach extends beyond the moving image into live performance and theatrics. A collective of women known as The Mutual Affection join up with Natural Sympathies on stage. Included in this gaggle of talent:  Avianna Hudym (Saturnala Prime), Jenelle Jakobsen (Nora Nebula), Caitlin Mullan (Disco Medusa), Meghan Trenholm (Rex), Shayna Stock (Aurora Probe).

The artists’ immersive universe thickens with the presence of Mutual Affection, bringing her creative vision into the body as a host for alien signals. Their collective passion, vigour and strength heed the call:  THE FUTURE IS FEMININE. FEMINIST AS FUCK. This is a call I endorse and support with a sense of urgency. Amber speaks to her gratitude and affection toward her Mutual Affection community.

“Everyone in The Mutual Affection is highly creative, trusting, supportive and fun. They all responded to a public call-out for dancers on social media, which was wonderfully gutsy. They have performed with me on big festival stages and in small clubs alike, and we’ve gone on short tours together too, all of which bonded us through the shared experiences of live shows and travel.  They are often my first creative confidants. They are all wildly talented and skilled in a variety of witchy arts including costume design, dance captain-ing, travel know-how, mental health, tarot, pole exercise, snacks. Latin motto creation and art-making of all kinds. I think of The Mutual Affection as band members. My favourite times together are when we co-create choreography and dramaturgy; I feel like a 12-year-old kid making elaborate skits with my best friends. So:  maybe the best feeling in the world.” 

Amber Goodwyn’s community extends beyond the stage and video incubators into her most valued and cherished community of all – her domestic community comprised of husband Mike Rollo (also a practising artist), as well as her daughter, Fiona. Through the contents of her craft and the manner in which she addresses her lifestyle as a day-jobber, mother and artist – the artistry of motherhood becomes the primary code required of Natural Sympathies’ power generator.  Amber’s dedication to her family and willingness to engage her daughter Fiona in the practice of composing and enjoying music, directs the listener toward the North Star of my opening reflection.:  art is personal. I often wonder if art can escape the personal.

By default, even the dense, heavily-researched, hot-for-debate, cold-to-touch art pursuits can be rendered personal, as their very existence defaults to a portrait of the maker, whether intentional or not.  For Natural Sympathies, the clear and acute intention to embrace her own “personal” while extending community propels a genuine attractiveness – a hallmark for humanness. I can’t help but revisit a somewhat unorthodox 1990s song by fellow science fiction fanatic Rob Zombie – the title/lyrics: “More Human than Human”. 

The artists’ overlapping realms comprised of the empathetic and fem-utopian alien we call Natural Sympathies with a reality-inflicted, high-definition human, Amber Goodwyn are in constant conversation. Though the two embodiments might suggest an aesthetic differentiation, together materializes the wholeness of one petri dish – its contents of celestial matter that expands and contracts, akin to the rich reedy organ-like sound of accordions intersecting and breathing in an imperfect rhythm via the 2020 release:  “Four Accordions”.  The piece is a cover, or more accurately, an interpretation of Tony Conrad’s “Four Violins” (2020). The original Conrad piece is an experimental composition revered by the artist.

Here again we are faced with a camouflage trick of Natural Sympathies:  Alien as human, human as alien, free of any novelty character fracture. The listener bears witness to a technology adhered to historical context repurposed for extra-terrestrial transmission waves. These transmissions are delivered with the staggered grace of a sharp sweeping line drawn with the edge of the large hand of a grandfather’s clock. The pointed hand is dipped in ink, and journeys on scholastic paper from the hard red line column to the edge of the sheet with uneven sediment rock beneath the sheet of paper.  Waves and lines vary.

Earlier I proposed a hunch regarding the ability for artists to adapt to disruption with more ease, which may be true in some cases and in varying degrees, but it is impossible to dismiss that even in altered and limited conditions as such, life continues with a new set of challenges and requirements to adapt to.  Artists may have specialized skills to cope with suspended time, but are not immune to reality in motion, whatever speed. Fantasy cannot exist without reality, just as the gift of Natural Sympathies’ otherworldliness relies on the simultaneous everyday lived experience of Amber Goodwyn of Regina, Saskatchewan.

“I’ve had to pour most of my creative energy into adapting my day job to pandemic conditions, and then the rest of my time is mainly concerned with helping my only child cope and thrive under quarantine conditions. There’s not a lot of downtime, actually much less than before the pandemic.  Getting bored or having free time helps with creativity, but I’m patient.  I’ve been thinking about the next album but I’m not putting pressure on myself to be prolific.”

The humanness of Natural Sympathies is so vividly heightened, realized and satisfied with its own gentle realization that it tragicomically feels like an alien anomaly in the face of our capitalist productivity machine. It is a machine and reality many of us have only now, forcedly taken a jarringly foreign step away from. As we anticipate an impending but surely altered and bruised return of the frenetic globalized world and its’ fractured rhythms we deem “inescapable” – Natural Sympathies, through her onstage offerings as well as the window she allows us to enter her own sense of the personal, inspires access to our own artistry when designing our own communities and worlds – domestic and beyond.  In many ways the instruction manual on how to be a productive modern human being will challenge the agency we feel when applying such artistry in a real way.

We may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable in proxy to the enjoyment of slower moments, deeming them as “unproductive” or not contributing to our “legacy as effective humans”. On paper that sounds inhumane, alien in a bad way, but perhaps also, sadly familiar. I won’t deny that it feels like we may always find ourselves in some degree of conflict with the instruction manual, so if this prolonged pandemic moment in time can offer us something truly productive, it is just that – a moment to slow down and compassionately strategize, experiment and re-evaluate our communication skills with our matrix codes and blueprints. 

Maybe we could transform this conflict in a way where it feels more like a negotiation – one where artistry and wellbeing are not war prisoners. Twenty-five hours a day – no more. As fluid as we may aspire to be, sometimes we may have to shapeshift, which may involve some form of overlap. Perhaps we realize the human in our alien and/or the alien in our human. We may have to embrace a hard line. We love the hard line. A triangle. An isosceles.  And all those other triangular shapes. 

Naturally we sympathize with the shape of social distancing – a series of domestic cubicles communicating through state-of-the-art digital technology.  In preparation to re-enter planet Earth from our sterile fortresses, may we fill our homes with imagination, expansive moments, and music. I suggest the wonderfully extra-terrestrial humanness of “Porous” – a timely release by Saskatchewan’s Natural Sympathies. 

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