The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve released three singles from this album since August 2019. What shapes your approach to releases? And after a year without gigs and moving away from New York, what motivated you to put out No Heaven now?
The process of making videos made the songs feel fresh, like a cathartic release. For “This I Pray,” I was just pointing a camera at myself on a tripod, but I collaborated with a couple different filmmakers—Charlie the Prophet and Ruby Bates—on “It’s Like That Sometimes” and “No Heaven.” It was a good practice for me to let go of controlling every aspect of the piece of art.
With the album release itself, my preference with the creative process is to not force it. I don’t want to create a product just for the sake of having it finished. But now that it’s done, I’m so grateful to feel like my own musical process can be a way to mark time in my life.
A lot has happened since your 2018 release of First Love. Within this idea of marking the passage of time through your creative process, does No Heaven feel rooted in any place or part of your story?
Originally, I was going to call the album In the Valley to symbolize my time living in the Hudson Valley. I wrote some of the songs while I was there, mostly leading up to when I left in this implosive way that felt at the time like my whole world was falling apart. Now I’m on the other side of that—a lot of these songs I feel somewhat far from at this point. I’m excited to release them; this album is a small little thing that feels beautiful, that gives me closure to know it exists.
Some of those early tracks mark such a period of upheaval in your life; what has been your experience interacting with those songs during post-production?
The first time I had to listen through the album, I was just like, I’m never doing that again. It was a lot of emotional labor. I’m already writing songs that are oriented to my current life. These songs that are new to the listener are old to me.
It sounds challenging, with how the creative process works, to constantly have to recenter yourself in a past state in order to meet your audience’s expectations.
It’s even harder to engage now with the pandemic. I’m physically in a new place, and even if I perform outside here or play an online show, everything will be new for whoever’s listening.
No Heaven includes more nods to your faith background, as does the 2018 single “Good Person.” Are your current spiritual relationships represented on this album?
People who have known me for the past ten years have seen me go through some intense chapters of being super devoted to God. They saw me struggling a lot when I was trying to follow a certain kind of Christianity. If you knew me, you knew how hard I tried to stay on that path. I just couldn’t do it.
After my personal world shattered, I basically lost my capacity for faith. I pray now, but I don’t feel connected to whatever god I was feeling connected to before—and I don’t want to. I don’t have this innate desire to find that god again. With faith, you can’t force yourself to believe in something.
My current teacher, Lama Rod Owens, doesn’t center a certain kind of path where you have to know all these things and be this certain way. He reminds us to center the work of liberation. That work is more important than me trying to figure out exactly what I believe.
We’ve talked before about interdependence as a means for collective flourishing. You’ve expressed that collaboration is the intentional extension of interdependence; how did that play out in the making of No Heaven?
I got to work with Be Steadwell in “A Letter To My Ex” right when my world was falling apart. She had written this beautiful musical, and then she gave it space to become. I watched the way that Be worked with people—how she was patient and dedicated and communicative. I was like, Wow, you trust people with this.
As an artist, sometimes you want to control every part of what you’re making; you want it to be exactly what you wanted it to be. She surrendered that to us and was intentional about incorporating other people into her work. The musical led to my own collaborations: I met Kevin Huang, who plays piano on “No Heaven,” and Khadija Jahmila, who designed the cover art.
I like being intentional about collaboration, especially if I can pay people and support artists of color and queer artists. If artists can get this financial support, then we can distribute our resources, which is an important part of how I want to move through being creative.
Part of that collaboration, I think, is audible: No Heaven incorporates a lot of sounds that seem new and different from your oeuvre. What was your technical process like, and what relationships grew from it?
I recorded songs in so many different places: New Jersey, Poughkeepsie, Brooklyn, Vermont, Connecticut. Depending on where I was, I had access to different technology and instruments. For the opening track, “I Appreciate You,” I put a microphone to a window and recorded the birds. My friend Nate Morgan is mastering the tracks, which is the first time I’ve let someone else do a final mix of everything.
You explore the tension of your relationship to whiteness as an Italian American for the first time musically in “Curse.” What about your process is manifested in that song?
I’ve been reading Are Italians White?, edited by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno. On immigration papers, Italians have always been white. A narrative grows from experiences of social discrimination and prejudice; there’s this cultural sense that we were oppressed and we came out of it, even though we’ve always benefited from whiteness under the state. I wanted to honor my elders, but I also want to hold myself and my family accountable. I feel like we’ve been excusing ourselves from deeper healing work.
“Curse” expresses grief about the loss of my family’s language and culture, and it also honors my grandparents. The track has a recording of my dad’s mom singing this sweet song that my dad used to play on guitar. One day I asked her, What was that song? As soon as she started singing it to me over the phone, I was like, Oh my gosh, I want to record this so bad, can you sing it again?
One of the most memorable lines on the album is from the titular track: “Unlock the prisons and throw away the key / ’cause there can be no heaven till everyone is free.” Without context, this line is an abolitionist proclamation, but within the song it grows from your experience as a psychiatric inpatient and the carceral system of mental health care in the United States. How has witnessing that overlap influenced your vision for liberation?
Being hospitalized, I saw people trapped in this system of going from hospital to hospital, some of them elderly people who don’t have family or support on the other side. I was bearing witness to that trauma firsthand in the midst of my own crisis.
It feels so big, the prison-industrial complex and the medical-industrial complex. They get interlocked until it feels like, How can this change? In “No Heaven,” my words are basically a prayer and a wake-up call. Jesus proclaimed heaven on earth. It’s a very white thing to think of my path to heaven in order to heal my individual trauma. I want to dedicate my healing to the healing of others whenever possible. When I feel like I’m suffering, I can tap into the suffering of the world. It’s constant work to keep returning to that awareness. We’ve got to keep going, keep working, keep supporting each other if we want liberation for everybody.
Find No Heaven on Bandcamp on December 17.