You probably think you and those most like you are “normal,” don’t you?
But think about it. If the spark of self-awareness that is you had landed in another body, with different parents, in another culture, you would have very different ideas about what is “normal” and what is “weird.” When you get down to it we are all little astronauts, exploring the universe in the vessels we were given, by no choice of our own. And we’re more alike than we are different.
San Francisco-based recording artist Micropixie aka MPX aka Single Beige Female has given those concepts a lot of thought. She has a fascinating multi-national background (described in her song “My Beige Foot”) which inspired her musical persona, an extra-terrestrial trying to understand the strange ways of humans. It’s a charming concept, and goes very well with her music, which by the way is excellent – get her new album, The Good the Beige and the Ugly and find out for yourself.
Here’s a cute video with a sample of my favorite song from the new album, “Superhero.”
The MPX Interview
I recently completed an awesome interview with MPX, one I’ve looked forward to since I began this blog. She is a deep thinker as well as a great musician.
You talk about where you were born and the places you’ve lived. I assume that’s autobiographical?
Yes, all my lyrics are derived from real life experiences.
How old were you and where did you live when you started making music?
As a young child (7-8yo) growing up in a North West London suburb, I played a few instruments (violin, recorder, harmonium), took lessons with a Hindustani classical vocal teacher, and was also in the school choir and local orchestra.
However I didn’t focus rigorously on any of these activities for longer than a few years at a time, and eventually dropped them all in my teens (though I remained a big lover of music, ie. spent my pocket money on records and cassettes, was an avid radio listener, made mix-tapes… y’know, the usual teenage music lover’s pastimes, fueled by obsession, restricted by budget). Into my adult years I remained a music obsessive, and realised at one point that I loved the feeling of singing (though only in private!).
Later in my 30s, a year after I arrived in San Francisco, my closest friend in the city, Neo (Jeff Crerie), one day suggested that we make an album. There was absolutely no precursor to this, I mean, it wasn’t like I had shared with him any long-held secret desire to either sing or make music. He said he got the idea because of my apparently musical way of speaking…
Intrigued by the idea, I dove head first into our project to quickly discover that, out of all the many things I had done in my lifetime, this filled me with the most joy (and by “this” I mean, playing with voice, words and sounds).
MPX 'Blue Alien' (courtesy of Lisa Cox)
How did you come up with your “alien” persona and stage name, Micropixie?
The alien theme was always there really: As a kid, an Indian girl growing up in London, I always felt like somebody who was “other”, someone who didn’t quite belong anywhere, and I also felt myself to be somewhat of an oddity in my family.
Then later in my 20s, the first time I went to live in Paris, in an attempt to escape the tedium of yet another soulless corporate workplace, I began to write a comical story set in the office of a large corporation. The characters were based on a few of my colleagues, and I drew myself as the alien that simply couldn’t understand how these so-called humans behaved (they were petty, competitive and cared about silly things!).
Then much later, when I came to San Francisco, I heard about a Green Card category called “Alien with Extraordinary Abilities”. Well, that phrase made me laugh my head off, which in turn inspired me. You see I had recently taken a photo of myself (which later became the cover of “Alice in Stevie Wonderland”) where my face and expression looked quite strange (“Wow, don’t I look like an alien?”, I said to Neo), and decided I would create a conceptual website called Micropixie: Alien with ] EXTRA [ Ordinary Abilities, about an extra-terrestrial being who had a large number of ordinary abilities (that's what the “extra” referred to).
The name of this fictitious character, Micropixie (aka MPX), was derived from the freelance graphic design business (Micropix) I had created years before from my time in Oxford. Micropixie was never a stage name, because I never imagined I would ever become a musician, let alone a performer…
How was working on The Good, the Beige and the Ugly different from recording Alice in Stevie Wonderland and how do you feel about the end product?
Alice in Stevie Wonderland was my first ever foray into working with audio and electronic music and I must say I consider myself super-fortunate to have had that first music-making experience with Neo. Not only did he patiently teach me whatever I was able to learn about audio production, but he was also very respectful, and thoughtfully considered every single detail any concern I expressed, whether it was lyrical, musical, technical or philosophical.
We were both very serious about our commitment to this project and, barring illness or time away from SF, we met 2-3 times a week over a period of 2.5 years. Pretty soon after commencing, I suddenly got that our project was not just a random collection of songs, but that an elaborate story was unfolding: namely the story of an alien who comes down to Earth with a mission to discover what it means to be human. Thus the idea for my first concept album was born and it became even easier, from that point forward, to write from my own experience using what had been the recurring motif of my life up until then — ie. feeling like an alien — as the central theme.
Once the songs were finished, we spent almost 2 months working on the artwork (not just the packaging but the 28pp colour booklet that went inside it) and finally released Alice in Stevie Wonderland in August 2005. It was a dream experience to work with Jeff, and I am still in awe of how well he and I worked together on every single aspect of that record. I believe it was a mutually fulfilling experience where we both learned plenty about 'music via technology' and 'music as conceptual art'.
The Good, the Beige & the Ugly, the sequel to Alice in Stevie Wonderland, telling the story of lil' MPX as a now fully-grown human female, was mostly created with UK-based producer, Paul Horton (one of the 10 songs, Bullshit Paradigms, was co-written with French musician Pablo Mengin, and another, Nice Dream, is a Radiohead cover; the 9 interludes were written by myself).
It was a lot trickier for Paul and I to work together because we live so far away from each other, and traveling from the States to England five times over the course of 2.5 years was neither easy nor cheap. On each of those trips though, we worked intensely for periods of a week or so at a time.
However, for all the challenges of working with a collaborator who lived on the other side of the planet, it was really quite something to work with this man: his extensive experience in music production meant that he was able to quickly craft radio-friendly tunes from absolutely anything I brought to the table: whether it was a full song, a verse, a chorus, or even fragments of ideas. For example, one song — The Girl From B.E.I.G.E. — was written in a couple of hours as a result of his inspiration to pull words and phrases from a big flowchart I had previously made about the album concept... the guy taught me many new ways to work, as well as more about audio production and music (he would sit and go over music theory with me… I loved it!). Also, his skills as a vocal producer are insane… he figured out my range instantly and knew exactly how best to work with it. And with both of us being British, we connected bigtime on our similar sense of humour; you can probably hear that on songs like No Nonsense.
As to what I feel about it? Well, considering it took 4.5 years from initial conception ("Hmmm, my next album will be an intergalactic feminist spy thriller...") to holding the glossy CD package in my hands, and also that the project cost me a huge amount of money to make and put out (on my own label, One Little Alien), and because of the personal sacrifices I had to make to get it done... well, in the end, I feel immensely proud of my second sonic 'baby'.
Who are your musical influences and who are some of the musicians and bands you admire now?
I grew up listening to the radio, and loving many soul, funk and Motown artists (no surprise considering the title of my first release), and I still do. But in the last 15 or so years, my listening patterns have changed. I think I fall in love with albums more than I fall for particular artists if that makes sense.
Many artists have made beautiful albums (some more than one!), and I go through long phases of non-stop listening — 306? 703? 1001 times?! — to whichever is my current favourite… listening on a loop, over and over, absorbing every detail of each one. I’ve always been most attracted to intricate, layered, well-produced music with lots of harmonies and I’m a complete sucker for clever lyrics too.
I don’t know much about genres really, and can’t follow/don’t care about all the many labels that now exist. I don’t really go searching for new music, but every now and then something falls into my lap(top). People I admire are super-strong, inventive female artists like Erykah Badu or Bjork, or old-time soul singers like Bill Withers. More recently I’ve fallen for Andrew Bird and Brian Burton (hmmm, “lead me to ‘B’s…”)
You seem to be a very… what I would call “conscious” person. How would you describe yourself? Feminist, humanist?
Both of those words are good. It’s such a shame though that the word “feminist” has such negative connotations in the mind of many, including women! Even today, a lot of people confuse the word feminist for a woman who is “anti -men.” But patriarchy hurts men as much as women, it puts us all in these gender-defined boxes.
How did you wind up in San Francisco?
Wow, how I ended up in SF… what a crazy long, convoluted story that is… almost unbelievable (“You couldn’t make this shit up…!” as they say). It would take hours to tell you the back and forth of my whole love affair with SF-Oh!, but in the end what made me decide to move here (from Paris) was the making of my first album. I had never worked on anything else that made so much sense to me
I felt my whole life, prior to my working on ASWL (“Alice in Stevie Wonderland”), was about me searching for what I was meant to do. And then creating my website (micropixie.com) was a lot of fun, and working on the album was the most satisfying, exciting thing ever.
What do you like most about living there?
I feel free here… finally comfortable in my (beige) skin, I think that’s what I like the most.
On your first album, Alice In Stevie Wonderland, I really love the song about the second-hand planet shop, “Earth: A Kit.” Inspired by Eartha Kitt?
Yes, that’s another play on words, but I can’t take the credit for the cleverness of that song. Let me tell you about it:
Neo (Jeff Crerie) recorded “Earth: A Kit” years before with a 73 yo female friend – his landlady at the time – doing the voice. One Sunday morning when I arrived at his place, he was making me breakfast and he had the original version of that song playing. I had heard it many times before, but then something clicked! I said “Oh wow, we should rerecord this for my album, with me doing the voice!”
And as I alluded to earlier, that was when I realised that this was the story of Micropixie’s journey on Earth (based on personal events from my life), and that Earth: A Kit was the first track, before she lands here.
So you didn’t write the lyrics?
On that song no, that one was lyrically 96% Neo… I just added the last four lines at the end of that track, so that we didn’t have a pessimistic ending (“the Manhattan Project, a crisis of New Yorkian proportions” would’ve perhaps stopped MPX in her tracks, pun fully intended…). I suggested ending the song with “induce a soft reboot,” that being a metaphor for my landing mission…
Ah so… I’m surprised, since it fits so well with the rest of your songs. It’s a great image, one that I wish more people could hear. Earth really is special, and fragile.
Yeah, Neo is a very clever man, not to mention a deep thinker.
Maybe I should promote Neo a bit? Has he done anything I might link to?
You should! He now goes by his real name of Jeff Crerie. He lives in LA, and mainly works as a producer. I’m pretty sure you’ll love a lot of what he creates… his own music as well as others at http://utmosis.net
The Radiohead cover (“Nice Dream”) is playing now. Tell me about that. Why did you decide to cover that song?
Oh good question! I always loved that Radiohead album, and I found myself singing along to that song in particular. I would always sing these harmonies, “under the neath”, as it were. And at a performance in November 2009 (Cafe du Nord, SF), I decided I would sing it at that show. It was really nice to sing, in this kinda weird way (ie. I was singing the harmonies I heard in my head, and not the actual melody…).
Later when Paul and I discussed doing a cover for the album, we had many options. I love singing lots of songs that aren’t mine — what singer doesn’t? — so there were plenty of choices. But then that song, with its opening line “they love me like I was their brother”, it resonated so much (and also tied in very well with certain of my own personal visions, that I mention on the album). You see, I have 3 sisters and no brothers (I’m #2 of 4 girls) and I always wanted brothers (maybe all four of us did?). So this Radiohead song fit so well with the desire to have brothers around me… actually I shouldn’t say I don’t have brothers… I guess I do… I have many great male friends who I consider as brothers.
How does your family feel about the musician thing?
They don’t get it! But finally they all accept it! I think they are impressed by the fact that finally I have stuck with something, and that I am super serious and dedicated to it.
Are you supporting yourself on music?
I am selling my music, which is pretty amazing in this day and age, but I am nowhere near close to living off that income. I have a part-time job – 3 year anniversary today! – which I really love because it is so right for me and my life (the first interlude on my new album is a testament to that). And I feel blessed that I got it just when I did. Prior to that for five years I was living off erratic freelance work (a whole host of random jobs) and then finally savings. Ultimately it was too stressful to live like that… besides the savings were always going to wither away, so I realised I had to get a “real job” again – YIKES!
I say YIKES because when I quit the 9 to 5 corporate world back in 2000 (after an epiphany I had at Glastonbury Music Festival), I said I would NEVER EVER go back to that life (how dramatic! But I meant it). Anyway, 3 years ago I feared I’d have no choice. I looked on Craigslist and applied for maybe 5 or 6 jobs, none of which I wanted. And then I saw this position for running a music school for lil’ kids! (“Part-time, work from home, my own hours more or less PERFECT!”) I got really lucky with it because my boss read my enthusiastic cover letter and ended up interviewing only me). My boss is also a musician, writer and artist in his own right and this makes him very supportive of all my creative projects. More importantly, he is OK with me doing the job from anywhere if I have to leave SF. I’ve done my job from the UK, from LA, New York, Mexico… it’s pretty funny, I have become an outsourced Indian in reverse!
But is it enough for SF? Expensive place to live isn’t it?
It’s not enough, no. I also supplement my income with freelance work (sound editing, video editing, graphic design, naming). None of those gigs are regular, but they pay well so I jump on them when they come in.
Sounds like you’re a very busy bee.
Yeah really insanely busy… I do think it’s not healthy to be this busy.
SF is a pretty expensive city to live in, but I am – and always have been – Ms. Frugal (as a child of immigrants, being careful with money is in my genes!). After basics are taken care of (rent, food, bills, etc), what’s left goes to a) my music (actually all my art, but music production is my costliest expense), and b) flights to see my family in the UK or to advance my music and other sonic projects.
The release of this album (my “second baby”, I call it!) became such a priority in my life these last 4-5 years, and I ended up sacrificing a lot for it financially and personally… but I listen to the end result and I am very proud, I do think it’s worth it. Now that it’s “out”, there is still a lot to do (PR, etc) but a huge weight has lifted off my shoulders! It’s been 88% ready for over 2 years. I finished it with Neo in the end: hired him and his studio in LA, and got the sonic part completed in 3 days last May.
Then after that, the packaging, the design, artwork, etc, that also took a long time and was not cheap… I wanted to make a beautiful object again. I’m really happy that true Micropixie fans are buying this Limited Edition CD and telling me they appreciate not just the music but also the artwork.
What kind of marketing have you had most success with?
Ugh, marketing and promoting my music is my least favourite thing to do but it’s necessary as an indie artist. I enjoy it only if I can make something fun, eg. those “small teaser” videos on Youtube. So I spend a lot of time creating stuff like that, but have no idea what “success” I have had with them in terms of generating sales. I use Facebook a lot to promote my work … it’s quick and easy for engaging personally with individuals, but it also does my head in (have we now become a generation of “likers” with no deep interest in anything?). That said, I often hear from people outside of social networks… I get lovely emails from random people all over the world who tell me they found my music, have never heard anything like it before, etc. I wish I knew how they found it, but it’s not always possible to follow up in detail with everybody who writes to me.
What’s next? More songs? Third album?
Yes, Neo and I started a new song in September. Musically it’s unlike anything I’ve done before. The subject matter is perhaps a bit risqué for traditional types, but I wanted to continue to confound patriarchal bullshit paradigms! I would LOVE to make a third album – of course it would be continuing the adventures of MPX – and I have plenty of ideas. But all depends on my funds and/or finding another perfect collaborator. Outside of music, I’m also very involved in a theatre production called Yoni Ki Baat (inspired by The Vagina Monologues, but they are all original pieces, written and performed by my South Asian Sisters). And I’m working concurrently on a few MPX videos… Lastly there is this podcast idea that I have been working on for about 2 years now, which I simply cannot wait to complete. I keep chuckling at the title.
MPX performing at SFIAAFF's opening party, March 2012 (photo by Peter Jensen)
Micropixie’s latest album, The Good, the Beige and the Ugly, and her debut album, Alice in Stevie Wonderland, can be found on CDBaby.com, Check out her Facebook page and her website. And do spend some time on the website – it has a lot of secrets, including a place where you can click on a bunch of dots with song fragments and make a sort of impromptu ambient song.