There’s something special coming to LA.
Multidimensional artist Rachel Mason will be showcasing her acclaimed ‘The Lives of Hamilton Fish’ at LACMA, before she takes over, we spoke to her about the incredible piece(s) of work. Read the insightful interview below, and don’t forget to catch her LACMA performance on June 23rd.
“There is sometimes this sense that you’re not totally in control- and that’s what I felt with this. That’s what I mean about the cosmic experience. I honestly don’t totally feel like I wrote it.” – Rachel Mason
Let’s get into the groove of who you are as Rachel Mason. Can you give us a little background?
I’m originally from Los Angeles. One of my claims to fame in LA is that my parents are the owners of one of LA’s sleeziest stores, The Circus of Books. There are two- one in West Hollywood and one in Silverlake. I went to Cleveland high school in Reseda and still have friends from there even though I now live in NY. I went to UCLA for my undergrad and Yale for an MFA in sculpture. One of my first jobs was working as a cashier at Norms on La Cienega. My first album of songs was recorded on a cassette tape while I was a student at UCLA.
Now we know you are an artist, a musician, and incredible innovator. How does your artist side come into play with who you are as a person? When did you become aware of bringing out your artistic side?
I truly remember an early childhood moment of getting kicked out a sandbox in nursery school and spending all of my time sitting at a little desk making drawings. Falling into and creating fantasy worlds has always been my salvation from all things that were and are scary in our world. So I do remember that making art was a solace from an early age.
When you first started dipping your feet in music and art, what aspect of these two called you?
I remember being about 11 years old or so when I heard Tori Amos. She wrote all these highly fantastical songs on piano, and as i had been learning piano- her work inspired me to try to write some songs, and I went to summer camp one year and performed one of my original songs for the kids- which was terrifying, but after I did that I recalled hearing some of them singing my song and the lyrics coming out of other peoples’ mouths was so fascinating to me- that it made me think I should keep doing this.
If you had to pick just one of your many talents, to live with for the rest of your life, which would it be?
I feel like if I had no arms, legs, or even no ability to speak- the talent – which I’m happy to say isn’t unique to me- its just something I indulge in- is the ability to fantasize. In my opinion, the ability to fantasize is mankind’s greatest weapon in any struggle against any and all oppression. If you think of Anne Frank- she fought the Nazi’s with her fiction- and had she not written it down, that fiction would have been inside of her head helping her fight. There is this great TV series from the 70’s called “The Singing Detective” – and the whole story is told from the mind of a man who is incapacitated and writes this amazing fantasy while in a hospital bed.
How did you begin to shape the artist you are today? Would you say that you are multidimensional?
I would say probably that’s a good term yes. I never set out to shape myself deliberately, I’d say that I just followed my various muses and they led me to where I am now.
Now the concept shaped behind “The Lives of Hamilton Fish” is not ordinary. It’s exquisite in a sense because it did happen. What was it about these lives that inspired you to create a project surrounding these men?
Every now and then, like this story- I feel some sense that cosmic forces are at play and something was handed to me for a reason. I had that sense with Hamilton Fish. I really didn’t ask for this, or even set out to make this at all. I felt as though it was simply dropped in my lap- and I stumbled forward with the clues until I did what I do with them. I write songs and make things come to life visually. So a feature film, rock opera just goes in line with my disposition. A good journalist might have written a book– which incidentally I’d love to read.
It’s so interesting, the fact that these individuals were laid to rest on the same day and the fact that they both have the same names is a little freaky. When you first heard about this story, what were your thoughts?
My first thoughts were exactly those thoughts. Freaky. How in the world can that be? Did anyone put two and two together? Did anyone from that time make anything of it? Did the editor of the newspaper put those stories nearly side-by-side on purpose?
What was the process like behind putting together 21 tracks surrounding this story? What was the most challenging obstacle you overcame while creating the song cycle?
Well the entire thing started out as a series of songs and nothing else. I had notebooks filled with lyrics and song after song felt like it was writing itself- truly. There is sometimes this sense that you’re not totally in control- and that’s what I felt with this. That’s what I mean about the cosmic experience. I honestly don’t totally feel like I wrote it. The characters, their words they came to me– I never set out to imagine myself as a serial killer- but I will say that after I wrote some of the songs from his character I did start to realize that the biggest piece of my learning came from him. From that sense of imagining that I could be a monster who would find some rationale to devour children.- that also of course was the most psychologically frightening thing about all of it. There is a real monster in my film and in my song cycle, but I didn’t invent him. Hamilton “Albert” Fish lived in this world of ours. And people like him will continue to live in our world. They are part of the human species. What I realized from writing these songs and being inside this story, was that the only way to really get further into figuring out what to do about people like this is to try to actually understand them- not just lock them up and kill them- which is what we do. The impulse is to execute these individuals, but unfortunately there are more of them and we must understand them.
Even if there wasn’t a movie, the songs alone would’ve also been amazing; the tracks tell the story, and it’s done so well. The sound is so honed in and follows the feel of the events that took place. When looking for the sound, production wise, what was the process like? Did it come first, last, or as you wrote?
I must say that all of the production and the sound tonality comes from one individual and that person is Stu Watson. He is in many ways also a multifarious person like myself and recording music is one of his endeavors- he’s a poet and scholar of ancient texts – and truthfully I’m not a fan of the recording process at all- especially when it involves expensive equipment and a tight studio-schedule which I’ve experienced. Stu recorded these songs in his tiny apartment with cats running everywhere – 4 cats to be precise- and I feel that there is a cat-spirit in all of these songs because of it. Stu also is an artist and he meticulously crafted the songs for a long time after I did the recording- that would be a question for his engineering work- but all I know is I would get emails at all hours of the day or night when he was working on it- and he truly worked obsessively on each and every song.
The accompanying movie is a vivid interpretation of what happened, as far as the creative concept behind it, how did you plan that out? Was it a team effort or do you take full responsibility for it?
I did plan out each and every scene, storyboarded, scripted and wrote it out like you would any film. The actual film – as with all films- is 100 percent a collaboration and I have to thank my team of costume designer, Heather Quesada, set designer, Zane Philstrom, makeup artist Stephanie Wise, costumer Tiffany Kirkland and of course the actors- the two leads in particular Theodore Bouloukos and Bill Weeden and the D.P.’s Jon Beanlands and Aksel Stasny.
Talk to us about performing this piece of work live, what’s the feel like? What kind of preparation goes into bringing it to life?
When performing live, I sing along with a version of the film which has the vocals removed so that the vocals are all live. I feel a very strong sense that I’m bringing something to life when I do this performance and I also feel very scared when the lights go down and I step on stage- but then it literally feels like I’m on a ride- and each time its different- there is a different feel in the room. It is a gift to be on stage- a gift from the audience. I feel deeply grateful for each and every soul that is there. When I have had a show of 4 people or a show of 300, its the same. I feel a profound sense that this is a journey that I am on only because of that person sitting across from me- allowing us both to enter this imagined world.
As far as preparation, the preparation took years, but now because I’ve done it so much, it takes very little- at least for me personally. I have all the songs burned into my head and I’m so able to do it that I just jump right in- I usually work with musicians that are also able to do the live performance without much rehearsal- and I really love having additional live music accompany the soundtrack and my singing.
With you showcasing this project in different cities, how stoked are you that LA is just around the corner? What are you looking forward to for you live performance in the golden state?
I’m beyond stoked about LA because not only is it my home city and my parents will be at this show, but LACMA is the very first museum I ever visited in my entire life. I have vivid memories of going there as a child and thinking, if I ever do something at LACMA that will mean I’m really an artist. I plan to invite my high school and elementary school teachers. Even though I’ve lived in New York for many years now, doing something at LACMA feels like a personal moment of truth for me. It is very very meaningful to be able to do this there and have it be the first screening of the film in LA. Of course I hope there will be more to come.
Can we expect more projects like these from you in the near future? What else are you working on?
I have the script written for my next musical-film and its entirely about stars- in the cosmic sense. I wrote it after a conversation I had with an astronomer where I asked him to help me anthropomorphize the various star types. This new film will incorporate stunning sets and costumes and will come to life in both staged theater pieces as well as a film and I have a small team of producers working to make this happen.
The Lives of Hamilton Fish is also in development as a live staged production. Cindy Sibilsky, a theater producer in New York discovered it when I did a small presentation about the project at the Tibetan museum in New York, called the Ruben Museum and she has been developing it into a real musical with the book by Pia Wilson, an award-winning playwright who I met while in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.