Photo by Priscilla Peña

———– What role did music play in your upbringing in the Diné tradition?  In the Diné language (Diné Bizaad) Hataałii means both “singer” and “doctor”. Also, in our language Sodizin means both “song” and “prayer.” So in my upbringing, music was all about deep intention to make the world a better place. Music was seen as a healer and singers were viewed as doctors. I was born into a world of struggle, as Native Americans continue to live in post-war conditions after the Native American holocaust. There’s a lot of work to do to improve our communities. I was raised by strong people to live my life deliberately and to view every one of my creations as an opportunity to heal my people, all people.

———– Were you discouraged at all from getting into American pop music and it’s culture as kid?  
I was never discouraged from this. In fact, society encouraged me to listen to this because it was “cool” and it was the only thing on local radio stations. I drank the Kool-aid for a lot of years and went along with the programming of American children. There was a time though, around age 10, when I actually stopped drinking soda and I stopped listening to mainstream music. I started to see that mainstream music often times was part of the problem of keeping the public ignorant and distracted.

———– What artists / songs got through to you early on and how did their music, vibe and lyrics influence you and your outlook on your place in the world?  The Beatles were a heavy influence growing up. My father was born in 1954 so he brought a lot of his music from the 60s and 70s into my life. When I picked up the guitar, the first songs I started to learn were Beatles songs and I think that continues to influence my song structures today. Other influences from all different genres included System of a Down, Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain (I know… funny right?), Blackalicious, Rage Against the Machine, India.Arie, The Glitch Mob,  Led Zeppelin, Ulali and others. These artists showed me that music is a powerful launchpad for bringing joy, inspiration, hope, education and unification to the oppressed. None of these artists were Native American because it seemed at the time there weren’t a lot of Native American role models in the music world for me. There was Buffy Saint Marie but I never really got into her music. Myself and a number of others are trying very hard to generate a new genre of Indigenous music that inspires the youth.

—————— You have a track record for winning poetry jams at a statewide, and nationwide level, when did music become an extension of your drive to share your message?  I was always a writer. I remember reading poetry in public places as early as 4th grade. I remember winning writing competitions that early as well, for whatever that’s worth. When I stumbled upon spoken word at age 14, I was an instant fanatic. I travelled all of the world in my teens performing spoken word. I also started picking up the guitar in earnest at that point. So my poetry and my music development started around the same age, but I was slower to become a decent musician, whereas writing and speaking came more naturally. I didn’t feel confident in my music enough until very recently, perhaps five years ago, to really include it in my public performances. But since then, it has come to be appreciated as much as my poetry is.

—————— What was your musical life like while at Stanford?  I think that a lot of the drug addiction and sexual abuse I was experiencing in high school and at Stanford muted my musical confidence. I didn’t feel worthy as a woman to do much of anything because I felt like a bad person. I didn’t realize that just because bad things were happening to me, didn’t mean I myself was bad. But because of that, I was very creatively stunted for a long time. It wasn’t until my junior year of Stanford that I started to heal from the rape, get sober and pick up my guitar again. At that point the songs started flowing through me all the time. I didn’t feel comfortable releasing them at that point, but now I do!

———— How does the song writing process work for you and what does it take for you to feel a song is finished and ready to be performed or recorded?  Everything is in prayer. Like my ancestors, I treat life like a ceremony. So first thing I do, unless I’m being rushed and careless, is I pray. Maybe go outside and offer some corn pollen to the earth and ask her to give me some good words. One of my mentors has a prayer that he says every morning: “May you help me help at least one person today.” That is a very beautiful prayer to me. So I pray that with each song it can help at least one person. I don’t have a real unreachable standard for when a song is finished. I try to be laid back and allow a song to go out even if it’s not perfect. I used to do that and I would never publish anything because it wasn’t flawless. Now I kind of rest in my imperfection and do my best and be happy with that. I’m often pleasantly surprised with what “my best” ends up being.

————- In a way what you’re doing harkens back to the late 60’s folk rock peace movement – do you feel any affinity with those artists and their music today?  I feel very connected to this movement, even though there aren’t a lot of highly visible Native American’s in that movement. I feel like even though it was mainly a White movement, it still had some very good messages and was trying hard to generate a new way of seeing things. I pray to further that movement by grounding it in Indigenous rights. I feel that before this country can have peace it must contend with its “original sin”: the fact that this country is founded on the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. Until we give lands back to what little Native people are left, and until we make serious efforts to uplift these communities on their terms, then we will always be a farce of justice.

—————– What do you do to get in the right head space before playing (or speaking) to an audience? Do you have a day-of-show ritual?  Again, prayer is the first thing I do. One of our old songs says, “Great Mystery, first I pray to you. Because of this, I will live well with my people.” This song reminds me that prayer is the first step to any process. I used to say a little mantra I’d say to myself before stepping in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. I would say, “I am always confident, calm, humble and strong before I speak to the people because I know I carry a message of truth, love, healing and peace.” I would say that all the time. But now I think it’s woven into my being so it is understood without being spoken.

—————– How was your experience last year at the Newport Folk Festival?  I loved being in Newport and not just for the seafood! I remember my set was sandwiched between a lot of amazing musicians on one of the side stages. I was the only woman in that section, the only person of color and definitely the only person who identified as Native American. So in many ways I was an anomaly. A lot of people in the audience were not expecting to hear an Indigenous activist/musician. They were overwhelmingly grateful for the set I brought and bought a lot of albums, the proceeds of which I donated to Lakota youth projects. These audiences often don’t know what to make of me, but they are always pretty moved by it and describe my set as a cathartic process.

————– You are asked to perform a song on The Grammy’s to further ‘First Nation’s’ causes / pride. You are to be allowed a brief introductory sentence or two and then to play a cover song of your choosing — what do you say to and play for America?
First of all, I should say, I try to refer to this land as “Turtle Island” and not as “America.” Because that is the original name given to this continent by its original peoples. But, I hope this day comes, not for the sake of my fame but to bring my people’s message to those who might not hear it otherwise. If I were in that position, I would say, “My people are busy working to revive languages and land stewardship techniques that were brutally destroyed by the processes of Manifest Destiny. We can no longer destroy what we do not understand. The systems of my people are not savage, but incredibly sophisticated and have the ability to bring solutions now, to a world in crisis.” And then I would sing an old song of my people, a song of overcoming called, “Shi Nishaa.” This song is the song that the elders sang when they saw their southern sacred mountain for the first time in four years. They didn’t see it for so long because they were being held in a concentration camp by the US military from 1864-1868. It is a song of joy and resilience. Not even the US military can stamp out this medicine. We are here to bring it to everyone, even those who tried to wipe us from the face of the earth. This is the unconditional love that my elders told me was the deepest medicine. – LYLA JUNE

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What are you working on and why are you excited about it?  I finished a novella called “Fenichel” last October. I hope to get this published soon. Beyond that, I’m co-writing a musical, “The Hotwife of Hyde Park,” gruelingly in development since 2014.

Did you grow up with music in your family?  A bit, yes. My mother listened to sixties folk music. The genres my father admired are better left unsaid.

Was there a live concert experience that impacted you early on?  In 2001, John Cale played a pub in Evanston. I had a ticket but, because I was underage, the pub (Tommy Nevin’s) wouldn’t let me into the showAnyway, I unhappily roamed downtown Evanston when, suddenly, I spotted Cale and his people leaving Pete Miller’s Steakhouse. I approached him, explained the Nevin’s issue, and mentioned I saw him live a few years earlier at the Knitting Factory—and no one at that venue cared I was a teenager. “Well, aren’t you a little recidivist,” he said, snobbishly dismissing me. His entourage chuckled. I felt incredibly stupid, but still asked Cale to sign a copy of “Fragments of a Rainy Season” I had with meUsing a needlepoint pen, instead of a signature, he drew various squiggles across the disc. After rigorously scratching my CD—making his music unplayable—the old Welsh rocker in the neon orange hoodie and baseball hat departed down Sherman Avenue.

What was your first public performance?  I can’t recall my first public performance. But I remember my last one: I performed with a friend who, in addition to songwriting, is a Chicago television journalist. Before soundcheck, he mentioned Rahm Emanuel would be at our show. This rumor swirled around the venue for an hour or two. In the end, of course, Rahm didn’t appear. I played to a small crowd utterly indifferent to my music, and a room smelling of calamari. A pretty typical David Safran gig.

How do songs come about for you?  At the moment, my songwriting process means fighting the urge to write songs.

How do you feel about playing covers and what are your personal fail-safe go-to’s?  I’ve never really played covers before. It’s a beautiful skill I seem to lack. But a few years ago, for Valentine’s Day, I recorded Lou Reed’s “HookyWooky” and sent it to my girlfriend, Emma.

What songwriters are on your Mt. Rushmore?  After my John Cale encounter, I stopped carving human beings into a rock.

What advice would you give to a young musician seeking a path?  My advice? Be sure that alongside your career path there is a revenue stream. The best advice, though, comes via my maternal grandmother, Hilda. Many years ago, my cousin was in the middle of his bar mitzvah, and flubbing it. He couldn’t remember the Hebrew bits. Aware her grandson was panicked, Hilda called out from her seat, “Just keep going—it’s not like we have any idea what you’re saying.” Really, that’s my only advice. Just keep going—it’s not like we have any idea what you’re saying.

Are you jazzed about any new artists or releases we should know about?  Actually, I was about to ask you the same question. I’ve been listening to the same five songs for the last twenty years.

Your time machine is set for the 70’s, what recording session do you sit in on and what suggestions might you offer to slightly alter rock & roll history?  Recording is a horribly boring activity. A studio is the last place I’d send my time machine. That said, I own a Smithsonian Folkways record called, “Calypso Awakening from the Emory Cook Collection.” I wish I could travel back to, I think, the 1950s and watch Small Island Pride record a song called “Taxi Driver.” – David Safran


1.0 – How do you compare 2006’s Wet Nurse To A Dirty Bag with the new EP, When Black Is Blue?

Wet Nurse To A Dirty Bag was a recording process that spanned almost two years for various reasons, both good & bad.When Black Is Blue, however, had 2 full days of tracking with a little extra off site tracking. The feel was spontaneous and organic. Musically they meld together being that my live show intertwines the two successfully. Wet Nurse To A Dirty Bag leaned more towards a grungier, darker, rock feel, whereas When Black Is Blue leans towards a more rootsy and, at times, quirkier side.

2.0 – It sounds like it came together rather serendipitously, or is that spin?

Ain’t no spin. It was pretty much a serendipitous affair. I had received a message from drummer, Randy Schrager, that he had a weekend free in between tours for Scissor Sisters and Jesse Malin. I then contacted producer, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, and he told me the weekend in question was free at Cowboy Technical Services in Brooklyn, NY. After rounding out the rhythm section with bassist Jared Engel, we rehearsed twice and went in and cut the basic tracks live.

3.0 – How was it working with legendary producer Eric Ambel?

Recording with Eric Ambel was as enjoyable as it was educational! The professionalism in the studio was the real deal while the vibe was loose and comfortable.

4.0 – What lead to the decision to do an EP versus a full length at this time?

The decision was reached via money or lack there of. I wanted to record a full length and had more than enough material but the budget was rather blue collar.

5.0 – What track on the disc are people gravitating to most?

I would say most people are gravitating towards the title track, “When Black Is Blue,” with “Heavy Thunder” running a close second.

6.0 – As a folk story teller of sorts, do you draw from personal experiences or approach songs as mini-novels?

I mostly tell stories derived directly from my own experience with a few name changes and a little necessary fiction when needed. Although the mini-novel approach is apropos when developing a concept rather than a specific experience.

7.0 – How are the east coast tour dates going for you?

The east coast tour dates have been a cool mix of gigs. They’ve ranged from playing in front of a couple of hundred people when I opened a bunch of dates for the great, Mike Doughty, to driving 5 hours to Annapolis to play in front of 5 people. Both ends of the gig spectrum are good times and lessons learned.

8.0 – Do you prefer the solo dates or fielding a band?

They are two totally different animals that I enjoy but lately, due to a few new collaborations, I enjoy fielding a band.

9.0 – What guitars and amps are you playing on tour? is that important?

It is very important. I play a National Resophonic Junior and a Fender Stratocaster through a VOX AC-15. I play a Martin DM acoustic guitar.

10.0 – Ray Davies stops by for tea, summons you to pick up a guitar….you start playing – what song?

Hmmm? … Bizarre question. Perhaps “Afternoon Tea” in honor of him. I might wanna run my new tune, “At The Rock Show,” by him to see what he thinks.