The successful songwriter can earn quick cash and credibility by releasing a book that compiles song lyrics. With proper line breaks and an elegant, poem-per-page layout, hooks and verses become poetry proper. Still, the written presentation is an afterthought for most.
Shirlette Ammons—a Durham multimedia artist who will simultaneously release a book of her poetry and an EP of her music next week—trumps that trope, giving both the musical and literary interpretations of her words equal prominence. Working together, the forms yield a rich picture of Ammons.
"The volleying between the poetry and music felt natural to me," she writes in the afterword to Matching Skin, the bound book of her words to be released by Carolina Wren Press. "In a sense, Matching Skin is a composite of the John Anonymous EP."
Indeed, when blended into song, her phrases might take on the blues' woozy wisdom, or a hip-hop shuffle's rat-a-tat flow. Whether talking about her band Mosadi Music or John Anonymous—her forthcoming EP of collaborations with members of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hobex and Tres Chicas—she strikes deep with her thoughts. Her ability to move between disciplines and venues is rare, her hunger to try new things, intense. She's a limit-free writer, addressing things both topical (her poem "What is Grass?" addresses the Marion Jones debacle) and personal (lovers, identity, her father and family's inspiration).
Ammons sat down in her Durham home to discuss the links between it all in an e-mail interview just five days after burying her father.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: We're almost neighbors, but, since we're doing this virtually, I'd like to know about your surroundings as you respond. Please survey the scene around you, and describe what's going on as you type.
SHIRLETTE AMMONS: Well, I'd rather tell you what I was doing when I first opened your e-mail yesterday. I had just gotten back from "down home"—well, Goldsboro, N.C.—where my sister and her husband now live. We had just buried my father—my pops—June Hamilton, the day before. He died on Monday. He was diagnosed with cancer a little over two months ago and died on Memorial Day. He and my stepmom lived here in Durham, off Alston Avenue, for many years. The services were held down home, in Albertson, N.C., which is where my dad is from.
So, yesterday when I opened your e-mail I was lying on my bed with my little black kitty, LeVon Fitz Barrow, gnawing on my forearm. I was tired but glad to have my dad honored in such a way that would make his thinly veiled grouchiness give way to his signature mischievous smile. Matching Skin is dedicated to my pops, June Fitzgerald Hamilton.
Right now, I'm listening to old Mary J. Blige in my living room—a remix of "You Don't Have to Worry" from her first album, What's the 411?
Your work has always tried to cross boundaries—hopping from poetry to music in a band and from style to style. On John Anonymous, you worked with a variety of musicians from the area. How have you encountered your collaborators and eventually worked with them?
The first person I think about when you ask this question is Caitlin Cary. I met Caitlin a long time ago. She was a bartender [at Humble Pie]. I would go sit and write and drink at the bar there, and she would turn me on to new music and shoot the shit with me. She turned me on to Joe Henry's Trampoline album, and I think I saw her do her thing first with Thad Cockrell one night at Humble Pie.
I wrote "Looking Glass" a while ago and approached Caitlin about singing it. The song didn't really fit the vibe of Mosadi's music, so we held on to it and were able to record it for this project, John Anonymous. She and Rhiannon [Giddens, of Carolina Chocolate Drops] did a great job with that song. I was so pleased that they both agreed to participate.
I guess the way Caitlin and I came to work together is exemplary of the way a lot of these collaborations came about. Most of the artists on John Anonymous are folks I've respected as friends and artists for a very long time, folks whose shows I've attended. They are present on this EP because we have relationships that exist beyond the music.
When you were working on the John Anonymous songs, describe the process of laying down those tracks with the other players, and their evolution through collaboration, if any.
The first person I actually sat down with to flush out these songs was Greg Humphreys. He came over to my house with his guitar, and we laid down a framework for "Tattooed Smile" and "Looking Glass." I had thought about the songs in advance, and so when Greg and I got together, he helped me develop the melodies. Then I got with Chris Boerner, who produced the entire project. He arranged "Ain't It" and helped me gather the musicians and vocalists for the other songs. It was his idea to invite Adrian Duke to sing "Ain't It." I think I still probably owe him for that one. "Juju Man" (which is a tribute to my father) was recorded while I was out of town (the music), and I recorded the vocals when I got back. Same with "John Anonymous."
Touchstones and references to influential works are important in your writing, both in music and poetry. How does your writing process use these as starting points?
Well, I reference other works to help give context for what I'm thinking about as I'm writing. I don't know if it's necessary always, but it helps me in framing the story I'm trying to share. I do employ exercises sometimes—oftentimes a few days of free writing with no intention of anything except writing. After that, I can't really say what happens.
When I can focus on nothing but what I'm feeling or thinking—I don't know if it's an escape or an arrival, but I do know I'm grateful to have such a place to go within myself. Sometimes it's gripping like a stomach ache, sometimes it's humorous, sometimes it's isolating, other times... I think everyone should be afforded the time to do whatever gives them reflective time with themselves. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
The title Matching Skin seems to reflect a tug-of-war at work between that title's inclusiveness and the CD title's mystery man, John Anonymous.
Matching Skin was the title after much trial-and-error. When I arrived at it, though, I was immediately comfortable with it, unlike the many temporary titles that existed before it. I imagine Matching Skin and John Anonymous as two sides of the same coin or mirror images of the same person. Matching Skin represents the many ways in which we seek likeness or affirmation, and John Anonymous represents the many ways in which we are made invisible or accept our invisibility. For me, these two images are particularly relevant for me, as an identical twin who has worked hard to define myself as an individual.
It's definitely relevant to my upbringing in the church, showing up for Sunday service as one person and leaving behind parts of my "Saturday night self" (particularly my sexual identity) so as not to be or feel like an outcast. Also, there's the relationship between blackness and double-consciousness that is age-old. Then throw gender into the mix and then factor in hip-hop and this digital media age that we're living in—all these things tend to contribute to our multiple consciousnesses. I wanted to look inside and offer a personal portrait but hopefully talk about stuff that a lot of folks are experiencing or thinking about—particularly those of us who are quite happy being left of "normal."
Tell me about a favorite memory of music early in your life. What's impacted you recently?
As I'm studying my pops quite a bit right now, I'm thinking about how he would always buy my sister and me a guitar for Christmas. We were way more into wrestling. This was during the heyday of wrestling—Dusty Rhodes, Magnum T.A., Junkyard Dog, Nikita Koloff—when "wrestling" was "wrasslin'." So we would stand our guitars on their necks and body slam them and perform the signature finishing moves of our favorite wrestlers—mine was Magnum T.A., so I would always destroy my guitar with the belly-to-belly suplex. I guess that's a music memory, right?
Shirlette Ammons reads from Matching Skin, and Tres Chicas, Greg Humphreys and Tamisha Waden perform music from John Anonymous Friday, June 13, at 7:30 p.m. at The Stables, 108 Morris St., Durham (formerly Blalock's). Admission is free.