Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Women Runnin It: Interview with Sarah Sexton

“Women Runnin It” features women in dynamic positions of cultural leadership in Oakland. Our first focus in this series brought a spotlight to Oakland female producers and promoters. Usually behind the scenes, these women are the ones bringing your favorite concerts, shows and nights for you to soak in and live the culture of Oakland. How do they build community and social arts networks? How do they curate a meaningful event or a club party?

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This installment of the “Women Runnin It” series features Sarah Sexton, owner and creative director of Oaktown Indie Mayhem Productions. Ambitious and hard-working, Sarah has forged a noticeable steam train as a promoter in the last five years. She produces concerts and events, co-founded the Mayhem Fest along with Awaken Cafe’s Courtt Dunlap (an online song and video contest exclusively for Oakland-based bands), and most recently held down a monthly residency at Leo’s and co-founded a new record label out of Oakland, OIM Records. Currently the booker for both Awaken Cafe and Legionnaire, the eclectic diversity of Sexton’s programming displays a commitment to community strength, engagement, and capacity-building.

A Texan-born Southerner, Sarah grew up in Alabama and Florida and spent time in Seattle before eventually moving to the Bay in 2005. She has been producing events here since 2009. She says her drive to share the resiliency of the cultural arts of Oakland was a motivating factor in her work. “Art, music, & nature are the only things that could ever express both the beauties & the atrocities I felt on the inside about life,” she explains. “[It’s] like a secret moment between the artist & myself. Some things are too hard to voice without a vessel, but art can be that vessel. That is why I created Oaktown Indie Mayhem.”

Her newly established OIM Records, focusing on the indie rock scene in the Bay Area, is a collaboration with producer and engineer Jeff Saltzman and Angelica Tavella, the founder of Oakland Drops Beats. Their debut release, set to be released June 23rd, is a compilation album featuring tracks from thirteen Bay Area bands; the first video release “Frayed” has already received positive reviews for its use of dance and 40,000 still photographs. A special limited edition run of vinyl will be pressed and free cassette tapes are offered at OIM’s June residency tonight at Leo’s with Lila Rose.

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Sarah Sexton

Oakulture: What’s exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

Sarah Sexton: The collaboration factor seems pretty amazing to me right now. There seems to be this overwhelming feeling of musical camaraderie, rather than competition, that seems to be boiling over in this ever glorious puddle of creativity. Artists here genuinely seem excited and inspired by other musicians. I think thats pretty exciting.

Oakulture: What relationship is there between your artistic work and your promotional and production work?

Sarah Sexton: If you mean, my own creative craft, it’s been an interesting path. I have found that although my passion growing up was painting, writing, and performing. I hit a wall several years ago and got a kind of artist’s block. I had started booking and promoting music and for a while blamed my work for sucking the energy out of my art . . . but in time I realized that the way that I express myself artistically has always changed throughout the years. I hadn’t lost my passion, my medium had just changed. I’m currently learning piano and it’s the perfect accompaniment to my career. It can totally mellow me out after a long day of deadlines and emails and scheduling, which I’m really grateful for.

Oakulture: What approach or strategies do you use for creating and maintaining an inclusive space?

Sarah Sexton: It definitely has always been important to me to be conscious in my booking so that i offer a wide array of artists opportunity to express themselves. However, it’s not something that is always easy. It takes breaking out of comfort zones to approach new communities, and taking risks on bands that you don’t necessarily have personal connections to or the inside scoop on. There’s also the whole factor of stepping on toes…I don’t believe I can cover everything on my own . . . it’s not possible. So I might be really strong at promoting/booking indie rock and world music lineups, but that doesn’t mean I know the local hip hop or electronic communities. And if I did, what a boring world it would be if Sarah Sexton thought she had enough taste to book everything. So I prefer to try my hand at an array of styles, but also invite others in to curate their own shows, highlight their communities, and make the venues i work with feel like their home for a night too! I believe diversity is what keeps art forever evolving and blossoming in new incarnations, and hope to support that.

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Oakulture: What do you wish people knew or understood more about the behind-the-scenes?

Sarah Sexton: It’s all out of love. Love for the music and how it makes me feel inside. Love for the community that deserves a platform for expression. Love for the venues that understand the impact art & creativity has on people and how desperately we need it to heal. There are a lot of other careers that would guarantee a lot more security, but I follow my heart, and my heart says Oakland.

Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Sarah Sexton: This may sound kinda cheesy, but i’m really enamored by Bill Graham. How people associate him today in some ways is neither here nor there for me, anytime someone gets big enough there is bound to be the ups + downs of their contributions to society I suppose. But it’s what he helped to build that blows my mind every time i think on it. As a young kid separated from his family in Europe, and coming to America post-Holocaust, he managed to grow up to play a pivotal role in a movement that drastically changed the entire world of rock n roll. That’s pretty epic in my opinion.

May 28 2015 053Oakulture: Oakland heroines?

Sarah Sexton: I have a few Oakland femme fatales that keep me ever striving upward and forward in the hopes of bringing their level of ferocity and classiness to the game. Women like Jennifer Johns, Antique (Naked Soul), and Zakiya Harris all have inspired me endlessly in their undying commitment to both their music and their community. Strong minds, hearts, and drive show that you can reach great heights if you allow yourself to be the glorious you.

Oakulture: Words to live by?

Sarah Sexton: There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; my philosophy is kindness. -The Dalai Lama

‘Frayed’ by Waterstrider from OIM Records on Vimeo.

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OIM Records Residency at Leo’s TONIGHT!
June 4th
Lila Rose, Emily Afton, Yassou Benedict, + El Elle
$12 DOS / $8 ADV

Doors 8pm, Show 9pm 18+

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Oaktown Indie Mayhem Productions
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Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ Zitathe Soulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ EMancipacion and Ramona Webb.

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I, the Jury: Critiquing Musical Mayhem

The Seshen

The Seshen

Sitting in on a juried panel,  trying to rate the best in local music is a pretty interesting experience. The occasion? The upcoming Oakland Mayhem (formerly Oaktown Music Fest, not to be confused with Oakland Music Festival), which takes place November 13, 14 and 15  at Awaken Café.  A whole host of local acts competed for some great prizes , including studio time, paid shows, free beer, flyers, hoodies, gift certificates from local bars, and swag bags.  Clearly, the organizers know what musicians need. Unfortunately, I missed the first night of critical reasoning, which decided the Best Song by a Local Solo Artist. The second night, however, pitted 25 local videos against each other.

Rating videos, especially those by independent or indie-label artists, means deciding on some sort of universal criteria. I quickly determined that my process would be weighted by how well the visuals went with the song, not how good the song was on its own, or how good the video was on its own. Production values, as it turned out, varied widely. So did the stylistic range, although the videos chosen perhaps leaned more toward indie rock, with a few urban-cred vids thrown in for good measure.

On to the videos. First, some overall thoughts: It seems there are some serious quirks getting worked out in the local music scene, creating a normative metric which rests squarely left of the mainstream center. That said, the utter avoidance of cliché is difficult to achieve, even for the most innovative video treatment. At the other end of the spectrum is weirdness for weirdness’ sake, of which there was plenty. Watching some of the videos, I got the feeling some of the directors watched a lot of “Twin Peaks”-era David Lynch. The best videos tended to be the most conceptual, and closer to short films.

Looking back on what scored high on my list, I liked Art Elliot’s “Days Like This” for its unpretentious home video aesthetic and for the shots which matched the lyrics practically word-for-word. The song itself didn’t do much for me, but the video clearly made it better. OTOH, Fantastic Negrito’s “Night Has Turned to Day” resonated strongly on both an aural and visceral level. The song is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, piano, guitar and harmonica-laced tune with a retro juke joint/voodoo soul feel, which was complemented by live performance shots, B-roll of local locations (always a plus), and montages of the artist singing, playing piano, and walking down the street. The video jump-cuts between black and white, red and blue-filtered, and “normal” lighting, striking an effective balance without getting boring. Kate Lamont’s “Birds of Brooklyn” was super-artsy, with still animation on a chalkboard—which must have been a meticulous task—providing the visual accompaniment to Lamont’s dreamy vocals and stuttering electronic drums. I also liked the use of Oakland’s inner-city streets and scraper bikes on Los Rakas’ “We Dem Rakas,” but the song, a mixtape version of a Wiz Khalifa beat with different vocals, lacked the originality to take it over the top.

Kill Freeman’s “You Wanted” was one of the more innovative videos in the competition, alternating white-screen backgrounds with jarring juxtapositions of dark-toned imagery, from butterfly fingerprints to (simulated) blood splatter. Like Fantastic Negrito, the video enhanced the song, but its austere vocals with minimal backgrounds didn’t quite move me the same way. I liked how the treatment for Saything’s “Mason Jar” used a fisheye lens to emphasize distortion and stop-motion animation for a lo-tech effect. Though it was done well, the visual treatment took on a ultra-violent tone, showing band members hung, decapitated, and self-disemboweled. A lighter feel was recovered by sOul from the O’s jazzy rap cut “Boombastic,” whose video treatment used archival footage of classic analog audio equipment and studios for backgrounds over green-screened foregrounds.

Which brings us to “the Jellybean Song” by the Fuxedos, as seen in the short film “Mimsy.” This was unquestionably the weirdest, most over-the-top video of the bunch, whose visuals could have been the love child of Dr. Demento and Devo. This one also featured violence: another ripped-out heart and a toilet smashed by a hammer, though much of the carnage was thankfully implied. Great visual effects, but in the end, I couldn’t give something that strange and disturbing my highest rating.

Totonko’s “Overgrown” eschewed literalism for abstraction, with a black and white video which emphasized out of focus shots and postmodernist pastoral backgrounds. The video was well done, but took away from the song it was attached to—an inspired mix of nu-folk, indie rock and dubsteppy percussion fills—rather than adding to it. Speaking of Devo, they may be the spiritual forefathers of the Phenomenauts, whose “Broken Robot Jerk” featured sci-fi costumes, postpunk guitar riffage, and lyrics describing a new dance. Very conceptual—and points for the life-size Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Robots—but the song got repetitive and tiring way before its endpoint.

Two of my highest rankings went to the Seshen and Zakiya Harris, who appealed to my judicial sensibilities with songs whose video treatment fit well with the music they highlighted. The Seshen’s “Unravel” is a return to the trip-hop era and everything that made it so great: expansive moodiness and downtempo beats. The “Unravel” video picked up on those themes, cutting between foreground shots of singer Lalin St. Juste and slo-mo interior shots of a house which emphasized the sense of loss and emptiness the song evokes. There’s a slight nod to “The Shining,” although the hallucinatory psychic terror is only briefly implied – just long enough to metaphorically link a haunted house with a broken heart. With lesser source material, the treatment might have seemed pretentious or disjointed, but luckily, “Unravel” is a killer song. The other judges agreed with my ruling; “Unravel” won Best in Show. (A complete list of winners is here.)

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

Harris’ “Shapeshifter,” OTOH, is much more uptempo, a future-soul banger which features amazingly-voiced, layered vocals and lots of costume changes and fancy dance moves. The video lends the rooftops and sidewalks of Oakland a cosmopolitan, almost Parisian, feel, and Harris’ makeup and hair is absolutely perfect.

Unfortunately, we’re running out of space to talk about the other jury panel session I attended, for Best Song by a Group, so I’ll quickly run down the songs I liked, beginning with Antique Naked Soul’s “Money.” The beatboxed backgrounds, blended with neo-Motownish female vocals and Candice Antique Davis’ powerful leads and “real talk” lyrics make this a strong, original tune – although another song from their album, “Lay Low,” was even better IMO.

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candelaria’s “La Cumbia Cienaguera” has an appealing mix of cumbia rhythms and dub effects, but the studio recording lacks the urgency of their live show. “Ghost in the City”’s “Smaller Every Day” was another thrilling discovery: anchored by killer female lead vocals, the song falls nicely into the funky alt.soul category. And the Jennifer Johns/Ryan Nicole/Kev Choice posse cut “Town’d Out” caused one jurist to remark they could visualize the song blasting out of bassy car systems; I liked it because it works as a rap anthem without dumbing down one’s intelligence. La Misa Nigra’s “Por La Bahia” is another find in the Bay’s ongoing cumbia resurgence, a traditionally-oriented tune with lovely interplay between vocals, horns, and accordion that’s ready to fiesta when you are. Maria Jose Montijo’s “Estrella” features a hauntingly beautiful, sparse melody which can send chills up your spine. I also fancied Waterstrider’s “Redwood,” which blended rockish riffs and midtempo EDM grooves nicely.

Overall, it’s a far different experience critiquing music and videos in a room with other esteemed local tastemakers than from the privacy of your own home. There’s the option of bouncing your opinion off of other folks, or hearing their reactions. Jurists were encouraged to be social and even advocate for their favorites, and some did more than others. The best part of the experience, though, was being able to hear (and view) such a wide-ranging spectrum of local artists – and to venture outside of my personal music comfort zone. The Mayhem jury offered a great opportunity to digest tunes I might not have otherwise heard, and not only widened my ears, but also expanded my appreciation for Oakland’s music scene. Shouts out to Awaken Café’s Cortt Dunlap and Oakland Indie Mayhem’s Sarah Sexton for what must have been a tremendous amount of hard work in putting the Mayhem Fest together, and make sure you stop by the Awaken for the Awards presentation.