Sxip Shirey Talks A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees, Coping With Depression, and Janelle Monae

Michael Brummett + Meredith Schneider

by Krys Fox

On January 13th, talented performer and story-teller Sxip Shirey releases his latest work, A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees. A long time coming, Sxip has some of his best work on display with this album, including the music video for track “Penny Red”, which showcases a number of people wearing a wig and acting slightly off-kilter. The track has some quirky sound effects in it, which makes the behavior seem more fun and inspired, a bit of art that reminds us of Sxip’s far-reaching talents.

In honor of the release of his new album – and its enchanting accessories in the music videos (i.e. “Cinnamon Stick“) he has produced from it – we got to ask Sxip a few questions. Get comfortable with his inspired art below.


Why music? Why art? What’s in it for you?

Did you know that sharks have to be in constant motion to breathe? If they stop moving they die. My brain is healthy when I am creating art and music, when I am part of the culture of art and music, and when I am excited about the art and music of others. My brain works best when I am breathing and exhaling the culture I live in or am passionate about. That action, for me, is the creation of art and music.

How was your perspective on life and the world you live in cultivated?

I grew up with two very intelligent parents in the woods of the Appalachian region of Ohio. My mother was the director of the Red Cross in our region and has strong social values. My father was a mathematician (and is now a photographer) and as we worked in the forest chopping wood, we would talk about quantum mechanics and ideas about astronomy. My brother says that I would get out of working by using the logs we were cutting as a xylophone. If I am am innovator, that comes from a rural experience rather than an urban experience.

What has been your creative evolution as an artist, from Sombule or earlier to A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees?

I am refining my sound. I am finding the balance that makes the experimental elements and the pop elements in my music so seamless that you don’t realize that you are dancing to hurdy-gurdy pulses, chicken frying in a vat, sample organs or mechanical carillons.

How do you stay inspired to continually create music?

At this point in life it’s not about inspiration. I’ve done it so long it’s just a gut reaction to my day to day life. I prefer it this way.

You’re rather well known for creating music with weird, unexpected, everyday objects. How does that discovery and creation happen?

I keep listening wherever I am. When I hear a sound that surprises me, I think, “What made that sound? Can I pick up the thing that made the sound and take it with me? Can I sample it? How do I recreate that sound or the feeling of that sound using other things?”

“The Gauntlet: The Highline” is one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve encountered. Could you tell us the what and the why about it?

Thank you. That makes me happy to hear you had that experience with it. The Gauntlet is the thing that I am obsessed with these days.

The Gauntlet is a choir you walk through. Two rows of singers stand facing each other on stools.  Each pair hockets a line of text back and forth, meaning each syllable of the line is passed back and forth between the two singers. The audience walks through the singers. The lines of text and melody are tossed over the heads of the audience and through the bodies of the audience.

The Gauntlet: The Highline is based on crowd noise with text co-written by Norwegian Theater Academy director Karmenlara Ely. The Gauntlet: Fredrikstad was created with students at the Norwegian Theater Academy for the 450th anniversary of the founding of Frerdikstad, Norway. This version is very harmonic and includes megaphone singers singing across a river from one fortress to another. For this piece we developed text through movement interviews done by choreographer Coco Karol. My CD release party will include The Gauntlet: Latency, based on a piece I wrote in memorial to David Bowie and includes Coco Karol and myself breathing in and out of each other with a mic in both our mouths.  It’s very intimate but epic as the sound of breath in the body is amplified through the room.

Do you have a dream collaboration?

Janelle Monae. I want to write for her.

Aside from that, my dream collaborators want to collaborate with me and I have collaborated with them. New York City is filled with musicians that inspire me and then kick my ass. That’s why I love it here. I love how great the artists are here. One night I do a show and I think that I’m a bad-ass and the next night or THE SAME NIGHT I am served a big slice of humble pie. If you don’t like the taste of humble pie, don’t move here.  I happen to love it. New York City make me want to work hard.

Is there a particular frame of mind a listener ought to have to best connect with A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees?

Have a smile on your face. Is it ok to laugh? John Cage was once asked about listening to his music. “Laughter is preferable to tears,” Cage replied.

What is your experience of the world? Do you take in as much as you can, live within your own mind, or another way?

Like most artists that I know, I was a depressive personality when I was younger. I started creating art events so that I could look back at my life and see a series of wonderful moments rather than the depression I had struggled with every day. I created islands of peak moments of joy. I am now much more balanced and happy but I am creating the best work of my life. I am constantly grateful. I thank the universe. I get why the older artists talk about love and connection. Patty Smith hero. “Just Kids” is the only book that really shows what it is like to be an artist in NYC. It’s not my experience but it captures the experience. As an artist in the world I have taken in a lot and I have given a lot and that has served me well.

Anything else you’d like to let our readers know?

The best response to art is more art.

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To procure your copy of A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees, check out the Kickstarter page! Keep up with Sxip Shirey here.

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