Sometimes dark times can fuel creativity and manifest good things, and for Ryder Cooley the ongoing pandemic has done just that. The founder of the New York-based dark carnival band Dust Bowl Faeries, she and her band will be releasing their latest album, The Plague Garden, on November 20th. “The Plague Garden would never have come to life in this incarnation were it not for the 2020 plague, which is not to say that I am thanking the plague for the album,” smirks Cooley. “I am grateful that something creative manifested out of this dark and dormant time”. Combining vaudeville, cabaret, klezmer and Eastern European music, the band creates sounds both mystical and ethereal and have drawn comparisons to Gogol Bordello, David Lynch, Dresden Dolls and Dead Can Dance. Cooley founded the band in 2015 with Hazel, a disembodied taxidermy ram that she rescued from a salvage company in Albany and who has since become her muse, stage companion and the band’s mascot/spirit animal. “Our breath mingles – mine in life, hers in death. Through me, Hazel visits the living. Through her, I travel into the cloven past. I feel Hazel’s death in my body as s/he becomes part of me,” she explains. An empath with a lifelong love of animals, Cooley writes songs about creatures that are living, dead, mythical and those that are vanishing before our eyes in an attempt to summon their spirit and document their demise. Heavily influenced by the Riot Grrrl era of the 90s, Cooley has always seen the music industry as being guy dominated and has always tried to have as many women in the band as possible. Although the band started out as an all woman trio, it has since morphed into a mixed gender and multi-generational band consisting of Cooley (Faerie Queen; accordion, singing saw, ukulele, lead vocals), Jon B. Woodin (Rocket Faerie; guitar, castanets, vocals), Rubi LaRue (Feisty Faerie; lapsteel, vocals), Liz LoGiudice (River Faerie; bass, vocals) and Andrew Stein (Time Faerie; percussion). The band recently released their music video, which they are calling a music novella, for “Candy Store”, a song that is their music take on a traditional Yiddish folk song. Cooley’s grandmother taught her the first verse when she was a child, while she wrote the remaining verses. The video was directed and produced by Film Faerie Lisa M. Thomas of Thin Edge Films, their collaborative partner on all things visual. With plans to release more singles and hopes of touring at some point in 2021, Dust Bowl Faeries are looking forward to releasing The Plague Garden and enchanting their listeners with their timeless sounds. You can connect with Dust Bowl Faeries and stay up-to-date with the soon-to-be-released album via the links below:
The Plague Garden, Song List
- Dust Bowl Caravan –written at the beginning of the Covid 19 Plague, to cheer ourselves up!
- Vampire Tango – written after Ryder attended a Voodoo ritual in New Orleans, this song is about La Sirene, the Voodoo priestess of the sea and of music. (dedicated to Cameron Melville)
- Sirens – a #metoo song about misogyny in the music industry
- Serpentine Samba – a song about a mythical sea serpent, The Kraken, who the band has re-gendered as a belly dancing queen of the underwater world
- Cyanide Hotel – a dark cabaret song about a haunted house where Ryder once lived. Written by Ryder & Sara Zar
- Ibex – about the extinct Pyrenean Ibex who was resurrected for 7 minutes in a laboratory
- Polyester – a new arrangement of a song by Ryder, originally written for her band Corner Tour many moons ago
- Forest of Breath – written while lost in an enchanted forest in the Czech Republic
- Pandemic Tango – this is the second song written during the pandemic, as the plague continued. Ryder tuned the piano herself with a primitive tuning kit
- Candy Store – a traditional (Yiddish) folk song that Ryder’s grandmother taught her, modified with additional lyrics by Dust Bowl Faeries
Both of your parents were teachers and really emphasized education when you were growing up. You switched from college to art school in 1990 and discovered a love for folk art traditions and working with the body. What can you tell me about those early years in art school and how they shaped you as an artist and your aesthetic?
I was at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) within the sculpture department. At that time the school was pretty traditional and very departmentalized, which drove me nuts because I’ve always been, I don’t know, an interdisciplinary oriented person. I discovered there was a sculpture department and it was a small department. I also learned that there was a group of women who were exploring performance art and body work. I moved into that department and it was kind of a funny experience, because that department was very traditional, as well, and it was predominately guys at that point. It was woodworking and welding and the traditional sculpture mediums and there was this little entourage of women who were doing completely radically different work. I think because there were several of us, they couldn’t get rid of us. We also had a few teachers who really supported us along the way. We just stuck together and really supported each other and were doing inspiration performance. Back then, I did play different instruments and was able to incorporate some sounds into my inspirations and performances. That’s how it all got started, I would say.
After leaving school, you went to San Francisco and immersed yourself in the city’s less restrictive underground arts and music scene. What was that time like for you and how do you feel you have evolved as an artist since that time?
It was definitely very liberating to go to San Francisco. RISD was very focused on the New York art scene and it just didn’t feel right for me. I got to San Francisco and it was really by accident. I just kind of followed a few other people out there. That’s where I found this very experimental music and performance art and started collaborating with so many musicians and started working with a lot of dancers, even though I never had much of a dance background. I learned how to work more with my body and my very first band was actually me as a dancer, so it was very performative. You could do that in San Francisco. I think you could do that in New York City but it just felt so much more competitive there on the East coast at that time. The San Francisco scene was very inclusive and clear and openminded, and almost the more sort of wild your work was, the more interested people were in it. There were so many freaks and I really found a community of freaks there and that was the first time that had ever happened for me. Even in art school I would say that I didn’t really fit in. San Francisco was definitely the first place where I felt like I had a real community and really found my people and that was exciting.
You have said that from a very young age you have had a profound love and spiritual connection with animals and with the earth and have one foot in the spirit world. What can you tell me about that connection you have with the animals and the earth and how it affects how you operate in the world and your art?
I really have my parents partly to thank for the connection to animals and ecology. They were very liberal and kind of hippies-intellectual hippies-when I was a youngster. In my formative years we really were outside a lot camping, and I don’t know, I was kind of that flower child for a while. We really just had so much fun. People played music and we sang a lot of folk songs, so I really learned to respect and appreciate the non-human world and to care for it. I think that was another nice thing about going to the West coast to California, that I found this kind of art punk scene where people really shared those values. I had already been a vegetarian for a long time and then in San Francisco I realized that I wanted to be a vegan. It was easy to do that there because there were so many other people doing that and plenty of options of things you could eat. I think at a certain point, my parents, who were intellectually environmentalists, weren’t practicing in their every day life. They spent a lot of time outside, but I really took it to the next level. I know a few times my father said “What have I done?” (laughs), because I’ve been kind of extreme about it in some ways. My number one thing is that I really love animals. I feel that I am an animal and that we are animals, that we all are. I can’t eat them. They’re my friends. It’s like cannibalism to me, really. I know it’s different for everybody, so I’m not expecting other people to be that way. I think the number one thing over years for me has been trying to live cruelty free, which is not easy once you start thinking about it. There’s the easy layer of just buying cruelty free products, but they cost a lot more and are harder to get, but I’m so dedicated to that. But then you start thinking of all the things in your everyday life that you are doing, like bringing in fossil fuels, which isn’t really cruelty free. You know, the natural gas and the fracking and how that affects animals is all just really overwhelming, for me anyways, the more I start thinking about it. It can be a struggle to deal with it. I think playing music and making art has been a way for me to have somewhere to put all of that energy. Sometimes it’s an escape and sometimes it’s a vehicle for talking about these things.
You did a talk last year on how to survive financially and spiritually as indie artists and musicians in corporate America and have talked about how it’s difficult for you to figure out how to deal with the pressure to package, promote, market and sell your artistic identities. How have you navigated that corporate landscape as an indie artist?
I’ve definitely navigated around it and circumvented it. It’s not easy and I struggle with it a lot. I definitely, over the years, made compromises and made some decisions I wouldn’t have made in my 20s or something because I understand now, being older, how difficult it is. It’s so overwhelming, the capitalism that we’re living in and I can’t change it and can waste a lot of energy trying to fight it. I think I have tried to find ways to engage, but also keep a balance of keeping my integrity. I know that no matter how much I engage, I’m always going to be that freak outsider. There’s no way I’m going to somehow be absorbed into mainstream, whatever, pop culture. In a way, I don’t have anything to worry about. Sometimes I get frustrated and there’s a part of me where I wish I could find a way to market things and package them. As an artist, it’s really about communication for me and I make work primarily for an audience, and not all artists do. I really, really admire artists who don’t, like maybe it’s more of a spiritual practice or just the beauty of playing music or making something. But for me, thus far, it has been very focused on an audience. I do want to reach people who haven’t heard my music before or seen my work. At a certain point you feel like you’re kind of preaching to the choir, when you start doing the same shows with the same people over and over again. It’s really like a dance back and forth, I think, for me and is sometimes a little bit of a dark hole, but you’ve gotta keep trying, right?
You formed Dust Bowl Faeries in 2015, which started out as an all woman trio. What can you tell me about the band when you started it and how it has evolved to where it is now?
It really came out of this performance series I was doing called ‘Animalia’, which was the first one, and was followed by ‘Xmalia’. They were multimedia performances for, ideally, theater spaces and they were song based. Both shows were a series of songs that were dark fairy tales, really, about animals and enchanted dark fairy tales about human-animal relations. The second one, ‘Xmalia’, was really…I called it an extinction cabaret. All of the songs were based on extinct animals and the main character was this girl who would go to the pet cemetery and sing to the dead animals and then all of the dead animals came to life. When those shows were over, I decided I wanted to keep playing the songs from the two shows. Doing the shows themselves was fun but was pretty exhausting. There was a large amount of production involved and I think I just needed to do something more simple. I wanted to just do the songs and I was performing solo for a while. I was performing with Hazel who has stayed with me all these years. Hazel is a taxidermied ram who I think of as my spirit animal and performs with the band all of the time. We’ve also done a lot of other performance work together outside of the band. Hazel was in ‘Xmalia’ playing the extinct Pyrenean Ibex. The Ibex is a goat and Hazel is actually a sheep but kind of has goat like qualities. People often confuse her for a goat, so that is why she was playing the Ibex in ‘Xmalia’. It may sound crazy, but I kind of crashed after doing those shows and really felt like Hazel called out to me and was the one who said “Let’s keep playing the songs” and “I’ll be in the band with you”. It started as really me and Hazel, out of ‘Xmalia’, and then we had some shows booked and a friend of mine asked “What are you going to do for the shows? Are you going to just play solo or are you going to try to get a band together?” and I didn’t know. Basically, my friend Dennis got me the first two members. He was like “I think you need a band”. He got me the two women who were part of the original trio. I knew them both. We were all friends. He almost kind of put the band together for me, so it was a trio for probably a year and a half and then the keyboard player left. The lap steel player has stayed from the very beginning, so she and I found two more women musicians, a guitar player and a percussionist. For a while, it was an all woman quartet and that went on for a couple of years. Then, I had a friend who was a bass player, and it was a guy, and he said “You know, the sound that’s really missing from the band is the bass. You just don’t have very much low end”. He started playing with us and it wasn’t an all woman band anymore, but I think it sounded great. I started to realize that it’s nice when it sounds good, so since then it’s been a mixed gender group. I definitely always have as many women in the band as possible and some of the women that we have had in the band have been musicians and a couple of them haven’t really played that much music and learned by playing in the band. I feel like that’s been really important to me, because I think that the music world is still pretty guy dominated. There are a lot of women singers, and there have been historically, but there’s so many more guy musicians. I know singing is a real skill but there’s just this tradition of having men play all of the instruments and have the woman in front and she looks good and maybe she looks sexy and has a great voice, but I feel like there’s a power dynamic that I don’t like. It sets up this tendency where a woman musician is dependent on these guys to play the music and is not self-sufficient. I don’t like that power dynamic. I really want us to keep moving towards generations equality. That’s why sometimes the women who have been in the band…maybe I could have gotten guy who was a more skilled musician…but I’ve just always wanted to always encourage women to play music if they want to. Women don’t always get encouraged. Maybe you do when you’re younger, but then a lot of women have families and kids or whatever, and that takes over. I guess that’s why I’ve felt such passion about it. I was fortunate to be around for Riot Grrrl in the 90s, so that really influenced me and informed my thinking because that movement was all about women starting their own bands and being empowered and girl power. That really stuck with me and I loved that time historically for music.
You’ll be releasing the new Dust Bowl Faeries album The Plague Garden on November 20th, which reaches back to true folk traditions of telling tales of intrigue and mystery and creating powerful commentaries of the modern day. What can you tell me about the process of making the album, which you have said manifested from the dark and dormant time we find ourselves in right now? Were you interested in a certain theme for the album?
A wonderful thing happened, which was right before the Covid quarantine, around February 1st, I got a new housemate named Mike Schoonmaker. He is my favorite live sound technician ever, of all time. I’ve been working with him for years and he has done sound for me and my band, primarily at a local venue where we perform a lot, and in a few other contexts. He’s also a mastering artist, so he’s done mastering for a long time, and he moved in right before the quarantine. Then, the club where I performed a lot and where he worked shut down and all of the shows were canceled and we were suddenly quarantined together. He told me that if I wanted to do any recording, we could do that. We recorded a couple of songs and at that point I didn’t even really know what to record, so we recorded couple of older songs that hadn’t been recorded before. I think I got a sense that this thing was going to be going on for a while. Mike was doing a really good job of recording and it was also just something to do, because we were both kind of freaking out and depressed. We continued with the project and moved really slowly on it and some of the other musicians recorded their parts virtually and sent them in. I recorded without a click track, which of course made it very complicated for other people to record to, especially remotely, so there was some editing involved of just lining instruments up and all of that sort of thing. I do think that recording without the click track keeps it a little bit more real and less mechanical. There’s so much electronic music, and I like electronic music, so its not a criticism, but everything is so locked into this beat that’s not very necessarily natural or organic. I have a hard time recording to those click tracks, so we made it all work, even with the remote parts, and I ended up writing a couple of new songs to put on the album. We also recorded some of the more recent songs I’ve been playing with the band, so it really kind of started out as a solo project and then I brought the rest of the band in because, why not, you know? We didn’t really have anything else to do. A lot of it’s a little bit more uptempo and upbeat than some of our other past recordings, and I think that I was really wanting to not really play a bunch of really depressing music. I haven’t this whole time. I almost just want to cheer myself up a little bit and maybe cheer other people up a little bit. It’s still very minor chords and the lyrics are kind of dark cabaret, on the morbid side, but for the most part a lot of the songs are a little bit more upbeat, and if you aren’t tuning into the lyrics, you can kind of even dance to some of them or cheer yourself up with some morbid, dark cabaret (laughs). There’s a sense of humor in there too, where some of them are kind of making fun of ourselves. “Dust Bowl Caravan” is a song that I thought I was going to write…I was kind of writing it in my mind, just going around and playing shows and it gets competitive and I was really making fun of myself. You kind of get competitive with other people. The lyrics of the song are “It’s annoying how perfect you are. It’s annoying how lucky you are, or how clever or charming or whatever”. It’s also a critique of ourselves for even thinking that way and then moreso in the pandemic. It’s like, god, what a different reality of going around and playing these shows and peddling your wares and that just coming to a stop. It gives you perspective on everything. I kind of added the second part of the song that says “Throw up your hands, throw out your keys, jump in our caravan and enjoy the breeze. Perfection’s boring, what’s right is wrong. Life’s a mess and then you’re gone.” That’s the kind of like pandemic part, a third perspective almost of like “Gosh. What are we doing running around being so stressed out all the time”, because it gets stressful and it’s important to enjoy life too. There’s always something that you get out of everything. I guess that’s maybe the lesson I’ve gotten out of the Covid pandemic, just falling down and taking a look at where I am and what I’m doing and thinking about what’s working and what’s not working and all that good stuff.
What can you tell me about the song “Candy Store”, which you have said is a Yiddish folk tale that your grandmother taught you, as well as the music video you are coming out with for the song?
My grandmother was a huge influence on me and was just the best person I have ever known. She was just so wonderful and loved to play the piano and sing. She wrote a couple of songs, but mostly sang popular songs from her era and somehow she had a couple of these songs in the mix that stood out, where the lyrics were a little more on the dark side and they sounded a little bit more Eastern European and not your standard kind of song. I just always remembered that song, “The Candy Store”, because she taught the first verse to me and I could never remember the other verses. My family members couldn’t remember it either and I tried to research the song in a few different ways and haven’t come up with much. I don’t really know that much about the song, but somehow my grandmother knew it and we have played it a few times for people. I mean, I do recognize because I did study some Klezmer accordion. My accordion mentor is a Klezmer player. It definitely has Kelzmer chord progression and kind of like standard gypsy, Klezmer chords and structure. I recognized that about the song and played it a few times and people have recognized it. One woman called it “Moishas Candy Store”, so it’s definitely some kind of song that was rolling around in…I don’t know. My grandmother is not Jewish. I think there are some Jewish ancestors, but not on her side, so I really don’t know. She taught the first verse to me and I wrote the other verses, and the other verses were more kind of about contemporary culture. Burn down the jail house is just about a critique of the prison industrial complex. Burn down the brothel is a verse I really just wrote because I was living on this street in Hudson that used to be the red light street, so I think that one just came to me. Maybe some of those women who used to work that strip chimed in. I always feel like I have these connections to ghosts and spirits and whatnot. Burn the madhouse down was just about me having a lot of mental struggles and trying to keep it together and not losing it but sometimes I do. Mental institutions can also be quite corrupt and is a business like everything else in this country. That’s how those other verses came in. Lisa M. Thomas is the filmmaker who made this film, and this has always been her favorite song. It’s a lot of peoples’ favorite song when we do the live shows. Everybody loves it and some people who are fans who come back for more know the song and can sing along to it. Lisa always wanted to make a video for this song and then she decided to just go for it. She also works in film and television and she wasn’t working and wanted to do something creative in this time of everybody social distancing. We’re calling it a music novella because it’s definitely not your typical music video. It’s very narrative. There’s a long sort of narrative introduction before you see the band and before the song and the lyrics kick in. It’s almost like a narrative short without dialogue and it was pretty intense to shoot it. She got a whole film crew together because Lisa is the opposite of me. I’m kind of a DIY, scrappy artist and she likes to do everything to the max. She’s a filmmaker and works on big productions, so she kind of doesn’t know how to do a little DIY production (laughs). All of a sudden there’s Covid and we have all of these people coming from NYC…camera people and lighting people…and everyone had to get Covid tested. There are a million rules and regulations that you have to follow and it was pretty stressful. I kind of almost tried to talk her out of doing it because it just felt impossible, but when she puts her mind to something she’s doing it. She did it and it’s really exciting and I’m so happy with it and so grateful that we were able to do it and just to have something to send out into the world right now, which feels nice. It has all of the band members in it and we brought in a few other performers to fill it out. For the brothel scene, I didn’t want it to just be like cute girls doing burlesque in the windows, so one of the dancers we got for that scene is a genre fluid person who identifies as plural. And for the jailhouse scene, I brought in a person of color, who is a friend of mine and colleague that I work with. His name is Randall and he’s African American and I wanted him to be the jail warden and then the person locked up would be the white guy, who is Jon from the band, just to put a spin on what’s really happening in our prison system which is so many Black men incarcerated. It’s so hard to do anything at this time and everybody is nervous. Nobody wants to get Covid, so I really just appreciate so much that people took the chance and did the project with us and nobody got Covid doing it. We were very careful. Another fun thing about it is that we found this empty building that actually used to be an old candy store in the village where I live-Catskill. It was originally called Mayflower and was like a luncheonette, but they had candy counters in there and sold ice cream. We got a set designer who was really wonderful named Jesika Farkis and she and Lisa decided to restore that building, which had just been painted. Everything was white and sterile and they restored it to what it originally looked like, because they found that a lot of the old furnishings that were in the store were in storage. We did all the walls and put up vintage wallpaper and brought in all of the old candy display cases and lights. The people in the village were walking by and remembering it and what it used to be, the luncheonette. People were so curious about what was going on in there. At the end, we had a huge candy giveaway because we had so much candy and people really liked that. It was like a little thing that was happening in the town, even though we also were trying to keep a low profile because we didn’t want to run into any trouble. The especially fun and surreal part was filming the brothel scene. It was nighttime and there were a few people from the village who were walking around and it really looked like the red light…like, the brothel with the girls dancing in the window and people were walking by and thought it was really happening in Catskill. Some people hung out outside to watch the show, so that was kind of cute because it’s a pretty sleepy little town here. Well, it’s actually a lot less sleepy, because everybody from the city is trying to get out. Everything North of…well, I’m sure everything in every direction of NYC is flooded with people after what happened in the city.
What’s next for you? I know you do other kinds of art. Do you have any art shows or exhibits or installations, aside from your music?
Yeah. The main thing is my side project. It’s kind of out there. It’s kind of a performance life art project called Leech House. I have these medical bloodletting leeches and I’m their guardian host, I guess you could say. It’s all about parasitism and it’s really helped me to deal with my own parasitism, to be the host to these other parasites who feed off of my blood. It’s an exchange. They have so many enzymes that are good for us and I have blood that they need and they have enzymes that are beneficial. So that’s been really interesting, to just keep working on a little science project, almost, with these pet leeches. I’m hoping, at some point, to…I did one exhibit last year with the project and have been collaborating with photographers on it…but am hoping when things stabilize to be able to do an exhibit with that work. It’s pretty edgy, but there’s a lot of phobia about leeches so it’s not for everyone. But I think it’s really interesting and to me seems so relevant to what’s going on right now. With our human parasitism, we’re just leeching the earth. The thing with the actual leeches is that they only take what they need and I think that’s true of so many animals. They only take what they need and somehow we haven’t followed in that way. We take way more than we need and create a lot of waste and I really think that’s why we’re in this mess. We’re in a big ecological mess and I don’t know how much can be reversed. With the pandemic, there are different theories of how Covid started, but a lot of people say it was in an animal market. That’s really just animal exploitation and I feel like it’s really time to look at our lifestyles and make some big changes. It’s not easy, you know. We like our creature comforts. I do too. It’s hard and I don’t know what we’re going to do. The leeches are so interesting because they really just eat one thing, blood, and it’s all they need. They’re such a simple creature and are very sensitive and I’m really learning a lot from them, as crazy as it may sound. So the leech project is going onward and I think we’ll probably record some singles after the album comes out, because there were a few songs that we decided not to put on the album. At a certain point I was just like “We need to finish this up and put it out,” so I think we’ll have some singles and “The Candy Store” video. I’m really, really excited about that coming out. It really feels like a gift to me because it’s almost like an homage to my grandmother, among everything else that we talked about. That will just feel really good. I do look forward to hopefully playing with a full band again, maybe in 2021 at some point. In the meantime, I’ve been playing as a duet with the guitar player from the band, Jon B. Woodin, and we’re doing a virtual series at our favorite club called Helsinki Hudson. We did the first show a couple of weeks ago, so we will be continuing with that over the winter. It’s called ‘Wish You Were Hear’. At least there will be those virtual shows to look forward to until we can start playing as a band again. I did enjoy last year playing with Rasputina and touring with her and it would be so nice to be able to do that again in the future. I was also talking to The Tiger Lillies from England about doing some touring together. Hopefully those things will be able to happen. I’m not much of a virtual person. I find it very disenchanting, the virtual thing, and being stuck on the computer all the time. It doesn’t feel healthy to me. I’m trying to go outside a lot and also make peace with this being our way of communicating right now and trying to find a balance, I guess.