A few weeks ago, we talked with Sarah Violette and Myles Bullen, the duo of rappers known as Planetary Access. The conversation didn't revolve around promoting new material or shows as the pandemic continues to stymy most of the music-related activity. We used it more as an opportunity to check-in, and talk about shifting priorities to cope with living in a moment characterized by chaos and upheaval. We spoke after protests began around the country following the killing of George Floyd.
So, everybody doing well today?
Sarah Violette: Good as can be with the world burning.
What have you two been doing to stay sane?
Myles Bullen: Well, I guess that's assuming that we are staying sane. I've recently been doing some mindfulness exercises every day. It's essentially the simplest form of meditation there is. You sit with yourself, and you check in with your surroundings. You focus on what you can notice in your environment. So you look around where you are, and you notice with your eyes, then you notice the subtle sounds that you can hear in the room or outdoors, and then you take a moment to notice the sensations in your body. You just do that for like 5 minutes.
Sarah: Wow, that alone was great! I feel like I was listening to like a YouTube mindfulness video. I was there with you just from you describing it. Perfect.
Myles: Aw, great, thanks. I've been practicing! So yeah, um, I've been doing that, and I've needed it. I've probably been the saddest, most depressed I've ever been in the history of my life this year. But I've also felt super fortunate that I've built these healthy habits and practices over the years when I felt happy, so now when I feel sad, I go back to those tools like mindfulness that I picked up ten years ago. I totally take it for granted most days, but recently I've been getting back into it and realizing how helpful it is to combat being in a state of distraction. You can't be distracted and present at the same time. Being present, bringing in this activity has made my sadness vanquish a little bit.
Usually, when I'm feeling it, I'm sad about the past or an expectation for the future not being met, but the second that I drop into my present-day, here I am right now, and I have nothing to be sad about at this moment.
I've been feeling a lot of anxiety myself. Lately, I've been getting way more stuck in the future because there's always the reality that we don't know what's going to happen. Still, usually, there's more of an illusion of security that "oh yeah, this is more or less how it is now, maybe with some improvement." But it's such a weird time. There's so much more going on that demands resolution. What about you, Sarah?
Sarah: I've been doing some macro-photography, which has helped me look at smaller worlds and realize how many worlds there actually are. It's kind of the mindfulness thing that Myles does except through photography. It's easier for me. I can sit with these flowers or slugs or whatever tiny being there is and kind of just look at it and be with it for a while. I've been doing that with birds too. I saw a Great Horned Owl the other day. Just being in nature, in general, is just really helpful for me. I feel like it's the best form of escapism because you're not escaping. I mean, I guess you're escaping from society's superficiality and going back to your roots. Also, being with my partner, too. Not really trying to pretend things are normal, but knowing things are good between us. We can't control the outside forces, but we can communicate with each other, and check-in with each other, and have love between us.
Myles: Yeah, I feel a little burnt out. I feel like I've been burnt out with the world for a while. It's important to me with the things that are going on in the world right now to figure out how I can be of service, but I realize that I feel weak and powerless. I guess it's not surprising the things that are going on in the world, but the reactions to it are surprising. It's kind of disheartening to see that people are making a big deal now, but this shit has been happening forever. I get a little sad just about how long I've been educating myself and making an effort on this thing, and now I don't know how to respond to it, in any way, anymore. I think there are a lot of people doing great things right now. Everyone is relying on the internet for information, which is, I would say, a good and a bad thing. Many people are making positive impacts on the world using social media, and then some people can cause more harm with it, and that's where I feel powerless. It's not the movement and informing people where I feel powerless. It's the platforms where things spread where I just don't feel like I have any moves.
I've always interacted with people in the real world, and that's where I feel like I can make an impact.
Back to something you said, Sarah, I feel like a lot of creative practices kind of have a mindful, meditative aspect to it built right into the essence of what it is.
Sarah: I totally agree. It's really helpful. The way you can transport yourself through creative processes is so important to me. I'm still here, but I'm just like in a different part of "here." You know, because there are so many versions of "here" in this realm. When I dream at night, it's so cool because I often dream about bird watching. And there's like, birds that don't exist in my dreams that I get to see, and it's so fun! So that's just kind of my happy spot right now. I just find a place that nobody's at and look at birds.
Are you two working on stuff musically right now?
Sarah: Not as Planetary Access, no. I kind of confided to Myles where I am lately — it hasn't been a music place for me in the last three months. I'll sometimes throw on a beat and see if anything comes, but it's been stagnant. I think it's because the energy of other people feeds me in that version of the creative process, whereas I feel like with the photography and the videography, I can do. That energy can come solely from myself and just be what it needs to be, but I need to be around my artist friends with music. Sharing that pool of creativity is really important. A lot of Planetary Access tracks came from when I would just go over to Myles's house, and we would write together.
Myles: I've been writing a lot, not necessarily writing music, but I've been doing these creative writing workshops every week pretty much since quarantine started. I've been teaching a class, so I take all of the prompts that I give. By now, I have a lot of stuff that I've written that I can eventually weed through to create songs. Generally, music has been really hard for me. I've been writing for some collaborations and trying to figure out home recording, which is a whole new challenge with the creative process because it kind of discourages me when I can't get it right. I kind of just lose my drive. Music has been tough. We released a few singles from Planetary Access, but we haven't done anything new.
I generate a lot of energy from live performance. Until Sarah came into my writing world, I wasn't writing new songs for like a year. I was just touring and performing. I got so much energy from rehearsing and embodying the songs I already made and trying to perform every song I'd written a thousand times instead of writing a thousand new songs. So I wasn't writing for a while, and then Sarah asked me to do this project, and I had a new wave of "oh wow yeah, I can write!" Then this hit and the lack of performance and collaboration has been — I feel like I'm detoxing from live music.
Do you think there's anything you've gained from having a period of dormancy?
Myles: I definitely gain a new relationship with the work when I explore what it feels like coming out of my body. As I'm performing or showcasing a song, I start to understand it more than when I initially wrote it. Every time I perform, I'm kind of learning about these little pockets of information that I left for myself like my past self created something for my present self to look back at and discover things about what's happening in my life. It's like I was planning to have a hard time and to use these songs as a compass to navigate myself out of a hell-like place. Does that make sense?
How about you, Sarah? I feel like downtime is an important part of the process, but no one really talks about it.
Sarah: I think the break from performing has been good for me. It's not like the Portland music scene doesn't have its toxic traits. We all know that problematic things are going on within the music scene. There always has been. I think the overall love of the community has always been good, but I think it's nice to take a step back and be able to say, "oh, this wasn't actually working for me, and I'm only seeing it because I'm so far away from it right now." Honestly, most times, when I book a show, I dread the shit out of it until I'm on the stage, and I'm doing it. I think that's important to look at — why is it like that for me? Is it nerves? What am I feeling there? Maybe this break exists for that. I love performing, and I love our community. Still, it's not always the most healthy relationship for me, and that's my responsibility to look at, like what am I adding to that, what am I doing that's problematic?
Myles: Yeah, our last performances were together, and sadly — but greatly — they were some of my favorite shows ever. Then everything stopped. It was like a good omen to end on that because those keep echoing for me. The ones we did together had the types of communities and things that I want to do in my life.
Sarah: Those were good for me too. I didn't dread them. It's more so the ones I performed by myself or whatever I go into knowing 'this doesn't feel right.' But you do it anyway.
Myles: I also stress less on a local level, but I've been coming up against a lot of fear with losing my travel ability with music. I've created friendships with supporters all over the world who I was planning on going to visit. I've been looking at the world daily wondering "when am I going to be able to leave this country again, if ever? And if I do leave it, will they let me come back in?" There are lots of weird feelings right now. I've never felt this restraint from the ability to move through the world — which has been a huge privilege. Often, I've been able to spin the globe around, point my finger at a place, and say, "okay, I'm going to do everything I can to go there." I feel very lucky, but right now because of the climate of the world, and the climate of live music, you know, people feeling safe enough to go to shows, people being smart enough to be able to go to shows. When is it okay to be a performing artist again that doesn't involve a screen and live streaming? I did a live streamed concert, and part of it was just really bad like the sound quality was terrible. I bought an interface, I have this amazing microphone, but there are so many levels of things I just don't know how to do.
Sarah: Yeah, it's so far removed from what performing in front of people is like for me. I need that energy. And like, you're your sound person, and you're the artist, cameraman, and promoter. It's just too much for me.
It's tough. Artists were already wearing too many hats. Maybe this is too many more, and that's okay also. It's okay to pause and regroup.
Myles: So Olive, I'm going to turn it back around on you — what was your goal with this interview, why did you reach out to us?
I mean honestly, not much in the way of a set goal. I'm just feeling a significant gap in my life. I don't know of any other community that meets as frequently and as informally as the musical community generally does, and I've been feeling that missed connection. I'm guessing other people do too. I just wanted to catch up, and I've been having a hard time feeling connected to people the way I usually do.
Myles: I think we're all kind of experiencing it at different times and in different ways. Some days I feel connected to people, and then other days, I don't. I think it's just like hyper-intensified by the lack of accessibility to people right now in the physical world. Obviously, in the digital world, there are infinite ways we can connect. We can connect with thousands of people daily, but it's a very different kind of connection. How does it feel to argue with people on Facebook comment threads? Do you feel good in your body when that's happening? Some people do, and sometimes the argument's worth it, but most of the time, I can't imagine that feels better than like, sitting at the park and having a conversation. I feel like we have so much access to people on the internet that we don't have in the real world, in the physical realm, that it's causing lots of anxiety and lots of disassociation.
I feel like interacting with each other through the internet, to some degree, makes us forget that we're animals. We do a lot of communication through tone and body language. That might not be there, and that's our instinctual base of understanding.
Sarah: It is. It's like the live stream versus in-person performance thing. It's the same with our relationships. Communicating with someone over text is different from being with them in person and holding their hand and just being next to them. Having that conversation, all the energy, all the feelings, all the subtle nuances that go into that communication style — I think we're all struggling with not having the full spectrum of senses. It's like a sort of sensory deprivation when you can only communicate online or through the phone.
Myles: Especially with sensitive folk like you and me, Sarah!
Sarah: Yeah, Myles, I just wanna hold hands and talk!
I have to say, not having social obligations has been nice. Honestly, as much as I miss all of those things, all those parts of communication, on the flip-side, not feeling obligated to be around people and constantly surround myself in crowds has been really restful.
Not having to cancel on people because I don't want to do things has been great. Such a relief, not having that particular brand of feeling like a jerk on me all the time. I love it.
Sarah: Hah! Exactly. And that part has made me more productive in a lot of ways. I've been feeling more mentally healthy. I guess because I've been able to clear a lot of space and process a lot of things. So that part's been really good, and I'm not going to be a Portland resident anymore as of July. I'll be 40 minutes away in Lewiston, so it's kind of interesting timing with that. It kind of happened well for me, but I also worry that I'll just drift away into isolation land and go mad, so I have to keep myself in check. Extremes, really, are my worry. I don't want to be extreme in any way.
That seems like a good instinct.
Myles: I agree, it's kind of nice to be forced to be introverted or introspective at least. You're in this circumstance where you can interrogate yourself and figure out what you really want. And then, you know, looking at your relationships. Who are you in contact with when there's someone to impress versus showing support when none of that matters? When it doesn't matter who sees you and where you are. I think the reason I like getting away [on tour] so much is that it makes me appreciate the community here. I definitely would lose my love for it if I never got a break from it. I need that perspective. Standing on the mountaintop to look around, appreciate the things below — sit on the ground, looking up at the things above me.
Sarah: I totally agree with that, and I was glad that Myles got me out of the state for some shows for that reason. Otherwise, I wouldn't do that because it's still uncomfortable for me, so I wouldn't want to.
Myles: Yeah, so the takeaway is you should birdwatch, practice mindfulness, and travel when it's safe again.