Interview and Photos by Holly Mitchell
Sarah Kinlaw is a musician and multi-disciplinary performer based in Brooklyn. Her eponymous somatic pop project is the newest vessel for her decade-long interest in authentic and intimate performance. Kinlaw currently co-operates the Bushwick experimental dance space Otion Front Studio, and in 2016 co-directed the large-scale immersive installation and choreography production Authority Figure at Knockdown Center. She has performed at MoMA and MoMA PS1, Pioneer Works, Miami Art Basel, Mana Contemporary, the Villa Medici in Rome, and starred in Tony Oursler’s Imponderable, which is currently screening at MoMA.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina in a small house right off one of the main through-roads in the town.
First instrument you picked up?
The piano. The first instrument I felt most authentically musical playing was bass. I communicate most fluidly through the voice and body.
What is your favourite part about living in New York?
There are so many aspects of living in this city that suit me but I would have to say that my friends and community come first. The energy, conversations, intensity, intellect – I sound like I’m gushing and that’s mostly because I am. It’s the pleasure of my life to feel connected to people and it's an honor to witness my friends as realized artists and inventors.
Second to this is probably the food and accessibility to more obscure wines found specifically in the city. It may stem from how disconnected I actually am by living full time in an urban area, but I am becoming increasingly interested in the science of food – how it's grown, presented, prepared, stories from the producers etc. I like when food feels moody. My most exciting NYC evenings are all spent around friends and food.
I do wish people consumed less meat overall, that part of consumption is incredibly upsetting to me. I can't get behind the sacrifice of another living thing for my own comestible entertainment, especially when I'm living in a city that's so hands-off in terms of what it means to actually kill an animal for food. In another life, I am a full time chef.
This doesn't change a very sticky and difficult situation but as laws pass that open up state legislation to cut off federal funding to family planning organizations like Planned Parenthood, it's felt safer for me to be in a state like New York over, say, my hometown of North Carolina.
What does the gentle side of New York look like?
It looks like sitting in my house. It sounds like 89.9fm on a Sunday; smells like taking the time to cook. My phone is turned off and in another room but isn’t misplaced. Like calling my mom. It also looks like a meeting or a collaboration. I love working with people. I find a lot of comfort bouncing around ideas out loud, about feeling excited over a project. I love to listen and treasure when people pass trust to me.
Was there a catalyst for you to start working with movement?
Movement has been part of my work for as far back as I can remember but it wasn’t until the past few years that I began to recognize in a bigger way as a dancer. Working for so long with voice, something so moody and rooted in physicality, made the fluidity between sound and movement something that felt really natural.
The space at Otion Front is..
An experimental performance and dance studio in Bushwick which I co-operate with six other best friends. It is a rehearsal studio that is open to the public; we host workshops and shows. Otion Front is the only church I’ve ever been part of. It it one of the most honest and well-intentioned art houses I know of.
Would you say your solo work guides the audience towards fantasy or reality?
I make therapy. It's rooted in the reality of experience and real events but is allowed to flip into the fantastical whenever or however. I don’t think this negates the real experience or makes things feel less charged. I do feel that through play we allow ourselves to process events from our lives in a different way than outright talking may allow.
I see people walking around the city, talking to themselves. I find myself doing this quite a lot. I sometimes make up situations in my mind and delicately role-play them – not in the associated sexy nurse kinda way – but by way of therapy. It's like training the mind, placing myself in imaginary circumstances to untangle. Somewhere in there I'm also sifting through weird subconscious stuff; trying to heal. It can be good to let the mind go, there's a reason it brings you to certain places even though it might not always be abundantly clear.
From solo projects, to your band SOFTSPOT, to directing, to choreographing, there are so many vessels of communication. Do they stay pretty exclusive or cross-pollinate?
I think projects like SS are going to stay locked in certain regards due to the technical that goes into making sound happen as a band.
The show “Authority Figure” that was presented at The Knockdown Center was an insanely large undertaking. Can you tell us a bit more about the process and outcome? What was the key to managing a choreographic work that large?
Authority Figure still feels like a page pulled from some remarkable dream. It started out as a casual collaboration between me and close friend Monica Mirable but just kept growing and growing. It became a project much bigger than either of us had originally anticipated but we were both ready and wanted something full-scale.
The process was grassroots. It was built from devotion from every single person involved with the project. There were upwards of 200 performers in Authority Figure, not including technical.
The key to managing something so full scale involves the obvious organizational stuff, but also looks into a lot of listening and sensitivity. On the flip side, however, we had to hold strong to a lot of determination throughout. This production helped me become a stronger and more compassionate communicator.
Would you ever do something to that scale again?
I most absolutely would and will.
Tell us about one of the stranger spaces you’ve performed at:
I once pretended to be someone’s fiancé at a business dinner.
You’ve shown your work everywhere from kitchens to the MOMA. It’s amazing to see the versatility of a project and how it evolves depending on the environment. How does the space inform your creations-or vice versa?
I never really describe my work as site-specific because it’s something I always just take in and consider, no matter. Understanding the layout of a space is something that’s just part of the way I always work. I typically plow through a handful of questions when working in all these different spaces – whether a living room or places like the MoMA etc:
How can I use space to help tell my story?
Can I see my audience? Can they see me?
Is this something I myself would want to see?
Am I creating an environment that makes my audience feel like their presence matters?
What makes a good show (of any kind)?
Intention, Research, Vulnerability
What keeps you centered? Is there a ritual you adhere to or a practice that gets your back in balance?
I’m personally anti-yoga which makes all my friends laugh. I used to practice a lot but ultimately feel like it takes away my fire, so I stopped. I occasionally meditate but honestly not really that often. I keep pretty regular sleeping hours which always helps me reset and keep a sharp perspective. I eat well and hardly drink if I’m really busy. I find an incredible amount of peace just hanging out at home, reading and cooking.
Your home is an incredible all in one work/live/play space! Can you tell us a bit more about it? Key features?
I moved into my Bushwick house during the market crash of 2008. It was a really interesting time for real estate, especially in Bushwick, because not a lot of people wanted to live in this neighborhood at the time. It was the first and only time in the city where I was able to negotiate rent and get what I wanted.
I’ve spent years fixing the house up with my partner, and have had a circulation of really incredible people as housemates over the past nine years. We’ve set the space up so that the bottom basement level of the house serves as a full time sound and music rehearsal studio. It’s also where Bryan recorded most of SOFTSPOT’s latest record ‘Clearing’, amongst others. It’s incredible to have a full drum kit and really be able to make as much sound as we want without issue. We’re incredibly lucky in that way.
During warmer months, I do most of my writing outside on the back patio. I like to wake up extremely early to write. I like piecing together thoughts just out of sleep, before looking at my phone, talking to people, or generally taking on the logistics of environment or other people. The patio is where I go to retreat but not get distracted.
Apart from spending time at practice/studio spaces, do you have a favorite spot to hide out?
Some of my best days are spent in Flushing, Queens sampling all the food. I love libraries, especially the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center. I love to fly home to North Carolina as much as possible to spend time with my family.
Use one word to describe your solo work:
Who or what was the very last thing that moved you?
I released a record with my band less than a week ago and have been moved to tears over some of the messages and calls that have come my way as a result. It’s been a really special and emotional week for me.
Where do you most often find yourself when you get creative impulses that stick?
Do you have any main style-influences?
No, I do not.
If you had unlimited resources, you would immediately…
Purchase a house upstate New York and another home in Los Angeles.