Telling the Stories in the Details: An Interview With Vanessa Rossetto

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It makes sense that Vanessa Rossetto was a painter before she dove into music and sound art. Her music is vivid and textural, and each expressive moment is a small piece of a more enormous spectacle, intricate and detailed but expansive in scope. I’d been aware of her paintings for a while before I heard her collaborative album with Michael Donnelly as Catrider. It was clear from that first album that she was tapped into something different.

Fast forward through the past decade, and her discography speaks for itself. After a series of crucial albums on Graham Lambkin’s stellar Kye label, Rossetto released her largest project to date, The Actress, earlier this month on Erstwhile. It’s an album that is impossible to fully digest as each subsequent listen reveals a new thread to follow. This aspect of Rossetto’s approach imbues her work, especially The Actress, with ageless magic. There is nothing else like it.

Rossetto can be found via her Bandcamp page (and I heartily recommend literally everything. Also, a special mention for her fantastic collaboration with Valerio Cosi under the moniker Pulga. I hope they do more in the future, as this is an underrated gem.). 

First of all, I’d love to hear about some of your earliest memories around not just music and sound but visual art since that was the first part of your creative practice I was aware of so many years ago. What were some formative experiences when you were younger that have stuck with you through the years?

My mother is an artist, so art was always a part of life in our house. I was encouraged to draw rather than color in books and instructed on fundamentals like color theory and perspective. I think what was most valuable, though, was simply seeing an artistic life modeled where it was treated like any other pursuit one might undertake – you just got up every morning and did it like anything else. I grew up in New Orleans, which is already sensory overload in so many ways, and my mother used to sell paintings in Jackson Square, so I was in the French Quarter all the time as a kid and just, like, the riot of color and sound enveloping you – it was a lot! Wherever you looked, a million things were happening all at once, overlapping and bleeding into one another. Later as a teen in that environment, maybe intoxicated, definitely walking, observing – some world-class observing is to be had there for sure. That’s where my love for the overheard was born. The way you walk, anywhere but especially in a city, and become lost in your own thoughts in extended, shifting reveries and then are jarred back into a different headspace by some unexpected sound is very important to me. I recreate that experience over and over in pieces. 

So like I said, I first knew of your visual art. Did you always want to be an artist?

I didn’t really ever want to do anything else. There were times I was more into different media or different forms, like more interested in writing for a while or painting. In elementary school, I was certain I would be the President of the United States. I didn’t think a lot about what I was going to actually be in terms of a job, which in hindsight, I probably should have. 

Eventually, you start working with sound, too. What first pushed you into working with that medium?

Partly being somewhat frustrated at the time with the limitations I was feeling in my painting and partly being around people who were working with sound and had equipment I could use, so a little bit of fumbling for change and a little bit of happy circumstance. I went to Terrastock in Providence, and Michael Donnelly and I hung out and recorded the Catrider album. That was how I learned to use Audacity, which was all I needed to get started. Once I started, I was obsessed. I had been wanting to make films forever, and sound seemed like a way of approaching a similar thing, like a cross-section of that thing. 

I’m curious how your approaches to visual art and music overlap and where they diverge. What kind of connections exists between the two?

They overlap a lot to me, but in ways I find hard to explain, probably mostly in terms of methods of construction because my paintings had a ton of thin, translucent layers, as does the sound work. Also, really small details play a huge part in both. When I was in school, I was also interested in performance art, and a lot of that carries over. I remember I did a project where I carried a microcassette recorder and made an effort to speak out loud and record my inner monologue as completely as I could manage. I wish I had the tapes! For whatever reason, though, there was a really long period in between where I was doing things like that and when I picked up sound as a medium again, but I have probably been like 20 different people in that intervening time. In some ways, I wish I had started sooner, but there is value in the fact I didn’t, I think. 

How does a new piece of music usually begin for you? 

Most of the time, I will start with one thin layer the length I’m aiming for the finished thing to eventually be, just to be like a scaffolding, then I start building up the structure of various sections as needed. By the end, that initial layer is usually almost completely obscured or redacted.

I can only imagine what your sound/sample library is like. I’m always floored by the variety of samples in your work. Where do you look for samples or collect field recordings? Is there something specific you look, err listen for, or is it less specific?

I have a lot of files but sort of bad file hygiene, so it’s a mess. So much stuff is barely labeled or labeled so cryptically that I have no idea what past me was even attempting to convey. I do a lot of recording just in/around the home – it’s really loud where I live, which I love, and people scream outside pretty often, so I have a lot of screaming people, overheard media, housemates’ TV viewing. I’ll just leave it recording all day and see if anything interesting happens. For better or worse, I’m extremely online and very inspired by the constant barrage of stimuli on the internet; sounds enter and leave like pop-ups. I’ve also been getting more interested in voice acting and have a lot of that material, lots of recordings of me doing different voices and stuff. In terms of what I look for, it’s situational – either some aesthetic quality of the sound that is interesting to me or, more importantly, some form of content to the sound or a sound from which content can be readily drawn. Anything funny I immediately love and am drawn to. Having a phone on you all the time means something that appeals to you, whatever that may be, is easily capturable should you come across it, without having to futz around pulling out a recorder and starting it up. 

Oh, recently, I have been obsessed with happenstance captures of people “counting down,” like “3, 2, 1…” and confirmation bias or whatever, but it keeps happening! Lately, people have been sending me stuff, which I love and highly encourage. Send me weird recordings! I’m starting a project using people’s recordings of themselves telling their favorite jokes. People have sent me their kids telling jokes. It’s great. Y’all need to send some in!

What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

Foghorns, ferry boat hulls scraping against their moorings with such ferocity that they sound like they’ve been rosined, cars with loud stereos and the windows down, speech cadences, languages, and accents. Fireworks. Car parades during the height of quarantine were a big favorite. Sacred harp singing.

You’ve worked with so many incredible labels through the years, but I wanted to specifically ask about Kye and Graham Lambkin as I’m just a great admirer of his work and label. How’d you first get to know Graham and come to put out several records on Kye? (Also, full disclosure, Whole Stories is probably my favorite record of yours!)

Graham ordered a copy of Dogs in English Porcelain from me. I guess liked it and asked me initially to make a 7″ (they were doing a series of them at the time), but then it was bumped up to an LP, which ended up being Mineral Orange. I just kept making and sending him albums under the assumption they would be released, and thankfully, they were!   

The Actress just came out, and, I think, it’s either your longest work to date or at least close to it. Did you always plan for it to be this massive project, or is it something that just kind of happened as it began to come together?

It is for sure my longest. I knew it would be at least a little bit because ErstSolo releases are double CDs, so I was conceiving of it as something that had room to sprawl out, which was really nice. I have felt constrained by length limitations before, so not having to abridge anything was great. It’s really long and really dense and extremely deliberate and planned. Because of the length, despite it being one overall thing I knew it had to be broken up into tracks just to be at all digestible or even really comprehensible or discussable for myself while working on it. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you had with it?

When something is that long and also that THICK, it can be hard to get a macro view of it overall to make sure it is balanced and consistent in the ways even a very varied composition needs to be. It’s like you need to get up on a ladder, or better, a small plane, to get an aerial view! Even stuff like keeping track of where certain elements are can be hard; like I’m trying to find one tiny bit and can’t figure out where it is, and it turns out I’m looking in the wrong track. 

And lastly, what’s coming up next for you? 

I’ve got a lathe coming up from Ballast! Like any day now. I’m also working on a collaboration with Moniek Darge and another with Matthew Revert, both from Erstwhile. I have a couple tapes, and stuff promised to some people, too, but no dates or anything for those right now. 

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