Spoiler Alert! Malene Joseph, who is already captivating as one of Freetown Collective’s supporting vocalists, wants everyone reading this interview to keep challenging her to live and share her most creative self!
Our contributor Nikeisha Joseph chats with Malene about her passion for singing, writing and painting and the journey of sharing them all with the world.
What are you? Are you a designer, artist, photographer, etc?
I find that I can’t fully self-define my creative space as it is nebulous and ever-growing. I have been called a Renaissance Woman and I think I have made some peace with that since, as daunting as it sounds, it is a fair reference to my mixed-discipline journey thus far as a musician, singer and visual artist, and my mix of creative and academic interests. I principally sing with Freetown Collective and I do arts administration for different public and private projects. I also do private tutoring. The dreaded double-life of an 8-4, plus my creative work. But it’s funny how that in itself challenges me to be more creative.
How do you define creativity and what does it mean to you?
To me, creativity is the ability to view seemingly incongruous materials, situations, people, things and weave magic. It is sometimes taking an idea and extending its lifetime and giving it, not only the space to manifest, but also the space to expand and echo even more brilliantly than initially imagined. Creativity is my, your and everyone’s daily act(s) of living and (of) survival.
If we want to go deeper, the creativity discussion often goes down a path of “creatives” and “non-creatives” and it’s a grey area. There is some sort of distinction to be made but that is another discussion of epic proportions. I mean who truly is to say who or what is creative and not? Live, dream, create, share... repeat!
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
We all are born with little “c” but it takes some opportunities, life choices and honing to journey toward the world of big “C”. Big C entails specialization and discipline and continuous learning and practice. While it could be said I possessed raw talent from an early age, I have definitely worked toward developing my musicianship and vocal ability over time. My visual art and writing development trail behind through my own fault and even fears even, but I am working on that in this year of 30.
When did you realize that you wanted to express your creativity? Was it encouraged by others (e.g., parents)?
I think I always knew that I had a lot to create and share with the world but it hasn’t always been easy to hold on to this or live it. My parents are the key members of my support team, they themselves working creatively, principally music these days. For example from as young as age 5, they would let me sit for hours sketching and save and show my work proudly to visitors. The piano in the living room was never off-limits. I sat at my mum’s feet as she taught piano lessons at home and they took us along to studio sessions or rehearsals. They sacrificed and found ways to expose me, and my siblings, to formal training in piano, pan and dance from early on. A life in the arts seemed as normal as ever to me. One of my aunts possibly has every newspaper clipping of me over the last 25 years that has anything to do with my creative work and performances.
Outside of home is where I found the most resistance and fear-mongering. I have memories of career conversations between me and school friends and I secretly felt ashamed that my responses were all duo-syllabic, “singer, model, artist” in comparison to the mouthfuls of “marine biologist, environmentalist, paediatrician, actuary”. I had teachers who asked me what my “real” career dreams were since creative ones did not count in their eyes.
What is your standard for evaluating your creative work and the works of other people?
My Gemini trait tends to make me treat evaluating anything with equal parts of yes and no. Is this acceptable? Yes. But is this your absolute best? No. You get the idea. My close friends and family find me somewhat exacting, but in my defence, I hold work up to my standards. After being around the embodiment of artistic excellence in the late Pat Bishop for almost 15 years I find it hard to produce anything lacking a certain polish or standard or give creative work a “pass” for mere effort.
Do you think that monetary rewards can be compatible with creativity in general?
I think it is wonderful and necessary for monetary rewards to go hand in hand with creativity now that we claim to recognise the value it plays in society and economy. That said until proper scales and regulations enter the conversation, the “M” word can easily become poison to your creative process. The urge to create and communicate is intrinsically motivated but buoyed by the opportunity for monetary reward sometimes. Within the lifecycle of any practising, dedicated creative, there will be the jobs that are almost purely money-driven but we must all admit there is always intrinsic motivation pushing us along.
Are financial rewards relevant to your projects?
I do a mix of projects and financial rewards are not always a factor, however, I never allow project partners to lose sight of the fact that I value my skill set and professional training.
Do you think your perception and evaluation of your creative endeavours are influenced by the views of other people?
Your creative work is an extension of you, so when someone says they don’t like it, it’s like them telling you, I don't like the way you breathe! And you’re like, what am I supposed to do with that!
I think I have finally found a balance as to which criticisms and evaluations I take to heart and which ones I kind of let float around. Everyone is entitled to his perception and evaluation; I do it too. But I think it is about being ready to receive it and filter it. I think you come to a place in your growth where you figure out when is a good time to deal with the information; your voice is steady enough to not drown amid the sea of critics and you are mature enough to receive necessary feedback gracefully.
What role do you believe the culture that you live in plays in your creative efforts?
I am a firm believer that you cannot escape your culture – it filters into your work in the strangest ways. I am a Carnival person. I like the idea of masquerade, Old Mas, extended metaphors, puns, saying one thing and flipping it on its head visually, saying something without actually saying it. I think that's partly my Literature background but it's also Carnival.
The easiest way to see this in my work is through some of my latest visual art pieces. They’re very tactile with raised bits of up-cycled beads and thread, so viewers are driven to almost want to reach out and feel the textures. I like to bring together things one might not think of seeing in one place. In a wider context, when I am writing or even when I'm putting together a project, sometimes I bring together ideas and components that others might not readily think of. Just like a Carnival band needs costumes, music, a truck, a parade route, I see all the different parts of a creative idea in my head already dancing and talking as synergistic parts of a whole experience.
What do you do when you experience a creative block?
Sometimes I get on my yoga mat because I need to still the rush of ideas fogging up my mind all at once. Mostly I try to select a playlist or soundtrack that matches the mood of the work I might need to produce or that can feed and balance my energies at the time.
How do you make the leap from a "Spark" in your head to the action you produce?
I constantly record my ideas and I have a notebook that I take everywhere with me. I write everything down because I have a lot of things in my head at any one given time. For singing, I have voice notes for harmonies and ad-libs. Let's say I’m working on a harmony with Freetown, I record what we did in rehearsal then when I’m ready for bed, I put on my headphones and go to sleep listening to it so that it gets ingrained. From there I am so familiar with the original material that I know where I have room to go, what worked or didn't work that well.
With my art, I spend a lot of time observing. When I find an image or series of images that speak to me, I spend time studying it in various ways, colours and dimensions. Many times though it’s my reading that gets the creative spark going. So many under-explored ideas lie on the pages of books. Each author can only take us on his journey and leave us at the end trying to retrieve the parts of ourselves that we did not even know were floating around in the words, leaving us to examine, interrogate and breathe another life into unfinished stories.
A lot of the work is about taking the time to review the spark and figure out what it means and what is the most pressing thing that comes from it. But I do think I probably should be moving on faster from that phase, of dreaming and all of that, because I think that's why I don't produce as quickly. I think a big part of turning that spark into action is sharing. You really can't work in a vacuum – I can't work in a vacuum. I have to turn ideas around over and over a few times and then share it with at least one person before I get started on it.
Do you have any special rituals that you do to achieve your creative goals?
I create with the help of music...or under the influence of music. I think about what it is I'm about to do and select the playlist that would most possibly be what my brain waves need at that time. If I had a really rough day at work and I get home to attend to another deadline, I tune out the world and put on meditation chants or water sounds. Or if I need to make something a little more dynamic and out of the box, it can be anything from classical music or soca to dubstep.
Stylistically, has your creativity changed as you have matured? If it has changed, please explain how?
When you're first being trained for example in like A Level Art, there are tenets or techniques that you have to learn and understand. The hardest part is to understand when it's time to break them. I've gotten to the point where now I'm not so safe, now I'm not so afraid to break the rules, to try my own techniques, my own brush work, beading or colour palette.
Being in Freetown helps because we are singing original music that grows as we share it. We're not singing covers or reading from a classical music score that people expect to hear a specific way every time, so there is room to bend and test certain conventions.
What has been the greatest sacrifice that you have made for your craft?
Time and sleep! I am surprised I still have friends that invite me to social gatherings because if I kept a tally of the numbers of “Sorry I can’t... I have a rehearsal/performance,” I have handed out in my lifetime... boy oh boy! I actually attended a friend’s wedding service, sang the requested solo and left to go to Queen’s Hall to play a concert with the Lydian Steel. I got back to the reception in time for corn soup and maybe half an hour of dancing.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
Sometimes I have conversations with myself like, "Why am I doing this?" “Why don't I just lean on the “right” side of my brain?” When I think about people like Pat Bishop and how much of her life's work was about seeing ideas to fruition and encouraging other people to harness the possibilities of their talents. Being around people like that you makes you realize the sky is the limit.
When I look at my peers and my network, I see people that are doing such amazing things, so what's my reason to give up? And there's a need for our voices – a need for Caribbean perspectives, criticism, movers and shakers to whip the industry into shape. I feel like part of my work and why I can't give up is to make sure nobody leaves their talent undiscovered and untouched. If I meet somebody and they aren't making it a thing, it's my duty to remind them to make it something. It's my duty to remember when I see somebody who could help them, to put them all into contact with each other – and then watch creative projects take shape.
Do you believe that it is important to be accepted by others as being creative or is just doing what you love to do enough to justify your work? Explain.
The older you get and the more submerged in your creative process and work you get, the more you realize acceptance is one fleeting aspect of your journey and it will come at least once from some corner of the world if you work purely and honestly. For every one person that accepts your creative journey and aesthetic, there are at least two that won’t but the world is big enough for intersecting and cross-purpose creative works and personalities.
Has rejection ever affected your creative process? Explain.
I have been guilty of not putting my creative self, and my work, out there as much as I should. Actually, it is more of not putting my entire creative self out there or as truthfully as I perhaps should. Because of this, I may have skirted life-stopping rejection, which is no way to live. Those of you reading this, I urge you to keep challenging me to share my most authentic creative self.
Looking at what you have created in the past, would you change anything today? Why or why not?
I'm kind of one of those people that believe everything happens for a reason and there's a bigger picture and bigger answer somewhere along the way. So no, I think you are supposed to look back at work and be able to see your growth.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
The Trinidad creative landscape is not for the faint- hearted. If we are all honest, doubt is not a contained, one-time occurrence. It rears its head many times especially in cases where you can recognize networks and personal relationships have trumped the merit of actual work in selections, funding and position appointments. I think this is a hidden positive though because the journey through those cycles of doubt gives you new fire to retreat, regroup, blaze unbeaten paths and push work to newer audiences.
What piece of work are you most proud? Why?
Currently, a small mixed-media painting that was part of a group exhibition at the National Museum and Art Gallery recently is bringing me joy. It’s called Pathways of Light.
Also, my very first full-length vocal recital happened in August 2007 and I think that sealed my thoughts on how dreams, artistic expression and hard-work all dance together in a beautiful way. After discovering I had acid- reflux and it was affecting my vocal chords, I had to stop singing and training for over a year. My recital meant a strict diet, vocal rest, night rest (no excessive partying) and working toward building vocal stamina and flexibility again. At my recital, I sang in Italian, German, French and English. I sang accompanied by piano, by a pan ensemble and with a choir ensemble. I sang my heart out and don’t think I have looked back yet.
What was one of the biggest things that helped during the recovery process?
My parents. They understood how difficult it was for me. I was still at Bishop Anstey High (Port of Spain) when it started, and I was one of our choir’s main soloists. People were calling me to sing at functions and I even got a vocal training scholarship. But I couldn't even take it up properly because one week I would have a voice but the next week I wouldn't. There were some songs that I didn't even want to hear!
When I went out with friends, dietary restrictions meant I could barely eat. Can you imagine looking at a table full of drinks and having to sip on only room temperature apple juice or water? Or smelling a good pot of curry and having to pass on a serving? Torture! My Mum kept reminding me of the importance of following the right diet and my friends eventually understood how serious it was for me and became checkpoints too if I threatened to lapse into indiscipline.
How did you feel when you eventually finished that vocal recital?
It felt like, ‘Ok, I can do this!’ I wasn't sure before, but it reminded me of what I was born to do. It was a real lesson in discipline and growth.
What is the best advice you've received that helped you move forward on your creative journey?
I had a very traumatic personal experience in 2012 and found it hard to even function in the most basic way daily, far less produce creative work. One of my best friends kept telling me: Use your darkness to fuel your work. Take this time to greet it, understand it, play with it and use it to find your way back to the light.
How exactly did you use that advice of letting darkness fuel your work?
It sounds stereotypical because people are always like, “You wait until you're sad to write”, but some real introspection, some real truth, some real freedom of expression came from that. I learned not to merely sit in the darkness, and decide that today I'm defeated and I'm going to just sleep through the day. I learned to sleep through part of the day, but to also take out a notebook and write down something.
To a young Creative emerging in your field, what advice would you impart unto them?
Find your tribe! Don’t misinterpret this to mean to go looking and sticking your head in places unprepared where you think you belong. Be still, work quietly and consistently and your work will speak for itself. It will naturally start to converse with other like-minded personalities and projects and one day you will realise that as isolated as you sometimes feel creatively, there is a whole world of dreamers and doers on almost identical paths.
When you read about the creative process of some of the greats – it's really about the routine of getting up and doing the work, isn’t it?
It’s a routine and a feeling. If it is that you write well at midnight then you carve out your day so that you have time to write at midnight. You also have to cultivate a creative space that is yours, so that your body and your brain start to know, once I sit or stand here, it's time to work. It's not creative dreaming, it's creative work – it's work.
And what is creative work like for you?
There are things that I don't eat regularly – like milky things or spicy things like doubles (sad face) – because it affects my voice and my acid reflux. I cheat in between but when I have something coming up, bet your bottom dollar, I am on my strict regime!
I warm up before every rehearsal and every performance to keep my voice in check cause I don't want to overwork it. I have to have the vocal discipline, I have to keep my voice stretched and limber and ready to work, cause this is my work. It is a case of never getting trapped in a singular dimension. It means keeping eyes and ears on everything that might feed my journey and work. It is finding focus and maintaining a centre within the sea of “pretty little things.”
What keeps you from getting distracted from the work and the process of creating?
I don't ever want anybody to accuse me of being a fraud, because it's easy to talk yourself up, it's easy to move in the right circles to look like you're doing something but are you doing? Our society is so small and the art circle is even smaller that it's easy to just roll with somebody who is doing something ‘cool’ and people just assume you're doing something ‘cool’ too.
What helps is that I have friends who are doing amazing things and they are doing the work. I can't be friends with Lou, Muhammad or Tishanna (Freetown) and not do the work. This is the life path they and so many others have bravely chosen and I can't sit down and just be like, “Oh I'm afraid” when they are not afraid of what they're doing. You have to earn and own your stripes to move in certain circles. I'm not going to sit down, that's not ok - I'm not moving on other people's speed at all.
For what would you like to be most remembered?
I want to leave a legacy of honest creative work behind. I want that people will always see my heart on a page, canvas or melody through space and time and recognize parts of themselves in it.
If you were a crayon, what would be the name of your colour?
Julie Mango Gold. I like the visual and the metaphor. It looks good, it tastes good, it's Caribbean and it’s something everyone looks forward to.
We can't say enough how much we enjoyed speaking with Malene and we're thankful that she shared her story with us. To continue following what she's doing and to lend your support and encouragement visit her blog then follow her on Twitter and Instagram.