Through the Garden With Brett Naucke

Moving from Chicago to Asheville recently, Brett Naucke has big dreams for his garden. There’s a lot that can be done with houseplants and growing in containers, but wide-open spaces are the stuff dreams are made of. When I expressed interest in a series of interviews focusing less on artists’ music and more on, specifically, plants and gardens, Naucke’s name was the first one mentioned and he was game from the start.

Even without discussing his expansive new album with Natalie Chami and Whitney Johnson, Mirror Ensemble, this conversation offers unique insight into his through processes and approach, adding a different shade of texture to his compositional practice. The album is a realization emanating from years of practice, but rather than a culmination, it becomes a new beginning.

Mirror Ensemble is out via American Dreams on October 1st and can be pre-ordered here:

How did you first get interested in gardening and growing things?

I grew up in this beautiful old house (see the inspiration for 2018’s The Mansion on Spectrum Spools) that had this super wild/overgrown property. My mother is quite the gardener and built this amazing garden that stretched around this unusual part of the yard extending into this creepy/wooded area behind our house. At the top of the hill there was a community garden which she built for vegetables which was equally as overgrown/creepy and I loved going up there and eating fruit/veggies of the vines much to her chagrin. She insisted on me helping her whenever I was free, which seemed like an annoying task for a child but I grew to love it and I loved spending time in this strange area of our yard that always seemed to be ‘haunted’ and could hide back there and sort of exist in an imaginative state back there. There has to be aspects of this surreal child-like state that inspires me to do it now.

March in Chicago. 15 degrees outside. Greenhouse bathed in light.

That’s awesome about your mom. My mom has always been an avid gardener, but it didn’t really click with me until recently and now it’s become a cool, surprising aspect of our relationship. Do you all talk about gardening or anything like that? 

She’s super there for helpful hints and tricks and when she does come over there’s certainly some evaluation of what we have growing we have going on haha. I think her general lifelong interest and including me on gardening at a young age was super impactful later in life

What kinds of plants do you most like to work with? (i.e. edible plants, flowers, etc)

My home collection is largely of some great indoor plants. I’ve got a beautiful 6-7 foot yucca plant, a 9-10 foot tall corn plant, a massive sprawling monstera, and a handful of other big boys. We have hanging pothos in almost every room, succulents everywhere, cat grass, you name it. I recently moved to Asheville from Chicago and the previous homeowner installed 3 large beds in the backyard which I will 100% take advantage of but might be too late in the year to start anything. In Chicago I’d really only grow spices, herbs, and the occasional pepper or tomato on our deck. We gave away about 30 plants (big and small) when moving recently. It occurred to us that living in a city made us decorate our every room floor to ceiling in plants to try and get some peace from the concrete/city. Living in Ashville with a yard, trees, and vegetation literally everywhere made us focus on some of our nicer plants as pieces in our house since we’re no longer living in a concrete jungle and plan for a more proper garden outdoors. 

Mirror Ensemble residency at The Empty Bottle.
Mirror Ensemble residency at The Empty Bottle.

What does working on your garden and working with plants do for you?

Therapy beyond anything else but It’s obviously wonderful to care for things and watch them grow. As I type this I laugh as this is what people say about having children haha. That said, most of our massive plants didn’t start that way and it is wonderful to have some nearly 10 years and continuously watch them grow. From an edible standpoint, making your own food is a great experience whether it’s growing some basil or mint on your windowsill or vegetables in a garden. Ultimately, I find living among healthy living things to be supremely important.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten related to gardening? And what’s your favorite advice to give to others?

Patience? I’m truthfully not sure I’ve gotten any great advice that I can relay. I mentioned my mother being a near-expert gardener who always has little things to say that help immensely but it’s hard to say since it’s usually specific. Patience and care go a long, long way in gardening anything though.

Chicago studio synth corner.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you?

100% living in a city the last 15 years. You get used to figuring out what things survive well indoors and what doesn’t. Who might appear to sell healthy plants and who doesn’t. Luckily Chicago had no shortage of wonderful places but caring for indoor plants can be trickier in the long term than some might think. Same w/ growing. I always wanted an outdoor space but good luck in Chicago. Asheville will be much more plentiful in the amount and different types of things we can grow and branch out. 

One thing that’s been big for me, especially in the last few years, is the therapeutic and restorative aspects of being around vegetation. Last year, when the pandemic was just starting and there was so much anxiety and uncertainty, one of the best ways I found to relieve some of that was just sitting in my garden at the end of the day. It was something I sort of tried to recreate on an album I did last year. Anyway! How have plants and gardening been therapeutic for you?

I totally get that and do similar things for my own mental well-being. I find gardening to be a very direct, 1:1 mono activity. It seems people struggle w/ turning their phones off or fully detaching and gardening w/ your phone on would just be a silly/longer experience than it needs to be. I have zero issues whatsoever disconnecting from my phone but I sorta feel like gardening takes me a step further-out of anywhere really. I’m just focussed on watering, up-keep, planting, etc etc without really thinking about the other things going on. It’s ultimately pretty simple, repetitive work and a good standard break from life whether it’s some 5 minute up-keep or an afternoon of work.

Plant bathing. Wintertime, Chicago.

Do you have any rituals or anything when it comes to relaxing that are plant-related?

In Chicago winters I’d get up early on the weekends, usually put on Jamaican or Brazilian or African records, and water everything in my house which at the time was upwards of 50 plants. Slowly the bulk of our plants got on the same schedule and many are comfortable with a good watering every 7-10 days or have their 2nd water on the weekends. It’s common for Chicago winters to sit at 20* and below for months on end and to have a tropical-feeling apartment both in sound and presence would make the endless winters a bit easier for me mentally. I know there is this sort of “ambient music + plants” scared combo, but to me it seems my plants enjoy the horns of a Fela Kuti record or the warm smoggy sounds of jamaican tape delay over the obvious  Mort Garson’s “Plantasia”… At least that’s the impression I get (shrug).

Anyway! A common Saturday/Sunday morning for me November-April in Chicago would be to get up around 8 or 9, put on one of the following records, and water everything and pick up the apt which usually took about an hour. I’d usually sit afterwards w/ some coffee or tea and kinda move through the day with a bit less anxiety of the impending endless winter. 

Early morning winter-watering records that never get old and will 100% help your plants grow*: (* Not proven to help plants grow)

Augustus Pablo “Ital Dub” / ‘East of the River Nile”
Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges ” Clube da Esquina”
Hugh Mundel “Africa Must Be Free 1983”
Quarteto Em Cry “s/t”
Burning Spear “Marcus Garvey”
Nelson Angelo E Joyce “S/t”
Fela Kuti “Water Get No Enemy”/ “Gentlemen”
Keith Hudson “Pick a Dub”
Milton Nascimento “milagre dos peixes”
Lijadu Sister “Horizon Unlimited”
Scientist “Scientific Dub”/ “Rids the World of Evil Vampires
Lee Perry & Upsetters “Super Ape”
African Head Charge “My Life In a Hole in the Ground”

When you’re working in the studio, are there any certain plants you keep in there? And if so, why those and what do they do for you in that setting in particular?

I’ve usually kept snake plants in the studio for their good air quality promotion and low light growing ability. But the last few years I’ve had my giant, sprawling monstera in my studio in Chicago as I’d often go in there to work around dusk when the sunlight shines through there the hardest, and the split leaves and crazy limbs would cast these wild shadows on the wall. There’s another few succulents that were in there that based on their direction grew a ton in the 2 years I was in there and grew quite used to having them around. As I’m building my new studio I’m debating on what to do but we’ll have to see. Even if your studio gets low/no light, throw a snake plant in there or even a fake plant. I can promise it will add at least a bit of life to the room. 

Has the affection and interest you have in plants and gardening overlapped in any way with your music and composition?

2018’s ‘The Back of the Garden’ (Unifactor) was loosely inspired by a unrealistic/dream-version of Chicago’s beautiful Garfield Park Conservatory, but was more intended as soundtrack to this imaginary / almost dystopian version of what was in my head rather than the literal place itself. Ultimately I truthfully can’t say that I’ve consciously used gardening/plants them in any other direct way for music production. The “synthesizers controlled by plants/biofeedback” has become a bit of a predictable Youtube trope and I can’t say I have any personal ideas/inspiration in using them at least physically in my writing. That said, I’m continuously inspired by physical spaces (real or imaginary) to make music so living in a much more overgrown region of the country, or even previously living in a jungle inside the city could have a massive subconscious effect on my music without me really thinking about it. 

Now that you’re in Asheville and you’ve got a yard – what are your plans? What do you want to grow?

Vegetables/Herbs/Food more than ever before. I finally have the room and went to the nursery the first weekend we were here to get some things in for the fall.

Roland in the Chicago studio.

Can you tell me a story related to one of the plants that is most special to you?

Growing up my mom had this giant fern that moved with us circa 1996 from Philadelphia to St. Louis. My sister took it to college around 1999, killed it and my mother spent the next few months resuscitating what little could be salvaged. She eventually brought it back to life and is somehow still alive and well 25+ years later in her garden. Perhaps that story has given me some sort of sense that anything can survive and I have had similar experiences several times since. I’ve got a 10 foot corn plant that has moved apartments several times, lost almost all its foilgae to bugs or rot, brought back, and recently made the 800 mile drive to Asheville. I got a 2 inch, near-dead cactus from Ikea from an old roommate that is now pushing 3.5 feet. My big monstera also suffered from rot, lost 99% of its roots/leaves, and 2 years later is several feet tall and sprawling new pieces every week. We recently gave away almost 30 plants to make the move but many of the mainstays were gifts or clippings from friends and/or have some kind of sentimental value for me in where they came from which is comforting. 

If you like what Foxy Digitalis does, please consider supporting us on Patreon.