"I didn’t consider myself a particularly political artist...Now there is no more separation. There can’t be."
Terrra Naomi on her transition to writing political protest music in the last year.
For Terra Naomi, 2017 was a year marked by change. A shift in her surrounding cultural climate, a new marriage to a trans man that was met with misunderstanding from loved ones, and a need to use her songwriting as a means of expression and processing unlike ever before. These changes manifested in her recent single, "Machine Age." We asked Naomi to give us a tour of the creative headspace that brought the track to life.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and the music that you make?
There’s a lot to tell…I assume you don’t want “I’m from New York and live in LA…” I’m a Cancer with Cancer rising and Leo moon? I’m a singer-songwriter, I recently married a wonderful man, and we’re looking forward to getting a dog someday…but right now we’re both working very hard on our careers. And as for my music, I started writing songs as a way to communicate. My ability to communicate has become stronger over the past few years, and I believe that transfers into my songwriting, as well. My music is kind of classic in a way. It’s not the next trendy sound. I create intimate, meaningful songs and that reach into your heart and communicate some kind of emotion.
You originally wrote “Machine Age” in under an hour. What was going through your head when you started putting these lyrics down?
Honestly, nothing was going through my head — I wasn’t thinking at all. I was in a trance-like state, just receiving the words and melody, not knowing what I’d written until the song was finished, and I went back to listen to it on my phone. I was aware of a feeling, more in my body than in my head, and it was like this urgency to get the song out. The writing process was kind of frenzied, and it was hard for me to keep up with the words that were coming to me.
What do you hope that someone will take away from listening to this track?
I believe people will get what they need from it. I’ve had people listen to the song and tell me they connected so deeply with their desire to love in this time of overwhelming hate; and I’ve had other people tell me they got incredibly angry listening to the song, and it fired them up and made them want to keep fighting. Same song, very different reactions. I think that’s a good thing.
I want the song to inspire, and speak for people who’ve been struggling with this current situation for over a year now. Obviously many people have experienced lifelong bigotry, racism, prejudice, but I mean the recent situation of all of these things becoming socially acceptable. I don't expect miracles; I’m not singing for the people who would tell a kid with cancer that tax breaks for billionaires are more important than that kid's survival. I don’t know how to humanize all of this, for people who somehow don’t get it. I’m singing for people in the trenches, who need support, love, hope…and if a few hearts and minds are moved to reevaluate, then that's great, too.
How have you felt your mentality shift in the last year? Has that affected your ability to write or create?
In my lifetime, I’ve never experienced rights being taken away — I’ve only experienced the hard won victories, the celebrations as our community got one step closer to equality. It’s a long way off, but at least we were headed in the right direction. My mentality has definitely shifted. I used to be able to separate my art from my politics. I didn’t consider myself a particularly political artist. I wasn’t silent, but I wasn't overtly political. Now there is no more separation. There can’t be. I’m too deeply affected by everything happening in our country, and it is part of my art, like it or not.
Some people questioned my choice to release a six and a half minute protest song as the first single from the album. But there was no question in my mind. The song came after the album was already finished, and I knew I had to not only include it, but release it immediately. I guess part of the shift in my mentality is that I no longer care what people think about me. I’m ok with not being liked. I’m ok with people saying nasty things about me. I don’t even care if they like my music — I mean, yes, of course I want people to like my music, and rejection still stings, but I’ve hardened this past year. I've had to. It’s ultimately a good thing, because being a little less delicate has actually allowed me to be much more vulnerable in my writing and performance. It’s funny how that works. I care less about outcome, so I’m able to give more.
What is the power and importance of writing music that reflects social or cultural unrest?
Music is such a perfect reflection of culture, and this has been true throughout time. You can listen to music from any decade and get a sense of exactly where we were as a culture. I feel like marketing has somewhat hindered the creative process, and even mainstream artists with something to say are less likely to say it, because many are beholden to corporations and brands. But even that is a reflection of our culture, in and of itself. It's a divisive time. Some artists are saying more, some are saying less. I wouldn't tell another artist what to write, but it's important to me to write songs that capture the entirety of these times.
What does the word queer mean to you?
Queer is a set of values, I think. For me, it's less about sexuality, although for many people that's a big part of it, and more about my personal code, my beliefs, a sense of existing outside of the status quo, an individuality, and an inclusive community for someone like me, who has never felt part of anything, always felt outside of, or "other."
How does “Machine Age” fit into the larger narrative of the album that you’re working on? Will you explore more of this theme in other tracks?
The other tracks on the album are equally emotional, but not political. I usually have to experience something to write about it. So the other songs on the album are deeply personal, more about life experience, relationships, love, loss…but the themes in Machine Age are not that different, really, because it’s all happening from my perspective, at this particular point in my life. There is a sense of sadness and hope that's present in all of my music, I think. Hope has always felt kind of sad to me -- the state of feeling some level of dissatisfaction with the current situation, whatever that may be, and wanting to believe in the existence of something better.