You may have seen her at our Kickstarter Birthday Party. She was the bad ass seamlessly blending her more classical flute training with her ethereal voice and the distinct timbre of electronic instruments. We’re talking about Rozalind MacPhail, of course, Cucalorus artist-in-residence and musical maestro, hailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The Cucalorus Film Festival is stoked to present the U.S. Premiere of MacPhail’s most recent project, “Head First,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 16, at Bourgie Nights. “Head First” combines a collection of silent films from various Canadian filmmakers with original music composed and performed by the artist and friends.
MacPhail’s electroacoustic music is modern but also “rooted in traditional songwriting,” according to her website. Much of her work emphasizes live performances. We sat down with the artist to discuss “Head First,” her experience at Cucalorus, and the distinct challenges and opportunities her art form offers.
Q: You’ve said before there seemed to be “signs from the universe” that lead you to Cucalorus. What specific opportunities led you to Cucalorus’ artist-in-residency program?
A: The idea of becoming a Cucalorus artistic resident was just a gentle whisper at first, but the message that my gut was trying to tell me kept getting louder and louder each time I ignored it. One of my film mentors, the DIY queen of Canadian filmmaking, Ingrid Veninger (“The Animal Project“), posted about the residency on her Facebook page while I was attending the Banff Centre last year. I remember thinking to myself, “well that’s something I would totally love to do but I could never get that much time off!” All of my insecurities totally held me back from applying. I kept saying to myself that I wasn’t ready for it, couldn’t afford it, could never get the time off work and would never get in. There was just too much at stake.
But the signs kept coming and they were hard to ignore. Ingrid sent out another reminder on Facebook about the residency, almost like it was a sign from the universe that I should apply. I had experienced signs like this before and every time I had acted on them in the past, something beautiful and magical always came out of it. I really wanted to apply but once again, my fear of losing everything I worked so hard to create held me back. When I got in touch with Ingrid to ask her about the residency, she encouraged me to apply, saying that it was the perfect fit for me.
I kept hearing more and more great stories about this amazing film festival in Wilmington. I started having dreams about North Carolina, a place I fondly remembered from visits during my childhood, and I kept hearing about Cucalorus in different creative circles. But it was through a meaningful conversation with close friends that I finally decided to apply, despite not knowing how I was going to make it work. I even wrote to [Dan Brawley,] the director of the film festival, explaining my fears about taking that much time off, and he encouraged me to apply. And as with all things that are meant to be, my application just flowed out of me when I finally decided to complete it. There was no struggle to find the right words.
A few weeks after I submitted my application, I was invited to become an artistic resident which totally blew my mind away. It’s a real honor to be invited to a film festival like Cucalorus. A dream of mine is about to come true: I get to perform the U.S. premiere of “Head First” and collaborate with a vibrant group of filmmakers.
Q: What have been some personal highlights of your career (besides Cucalorus, obviously)?
A: I would have to say the most recent one was performing films from “Head First” at TEDx St. John’s. Never have I worked with such an amazing production team who helped bring everything to such a high level of professionalism.
Another highlight for me was performing the world premiere of “Head First” at the Rolston Recital Hall at the Banff Centre. I used to train at that centre as a classical flutist during my younger years and always dreamed of premiering an important work of my own on that stage. When I was given that opportunity last fall, it was a magical experience. At that moment when I was bowing to my audience, it hit me: years of preparation, years of rejection letters, years living in the fear of the unknown – yet there I was accepting my first standing ovation. All of those moments were preparing me for that very moment. It felt great.
I’ve had so many wonderful experiences performing as guest flutist with some of my favorite indie bands/songwriters. Performing flute with New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo was a dream come true for me. It was from working with Yo La Tengo that I learned the important lesson of less is always more. Finding your place in the flow of what’s already happening is so important.
Q: When scoring a silent film, what informs your sound?
A: Each silent film inspires me to try something new. With that being said, there’s always a common thread in what I do to begin the composing process. I usually begin by watching the film many times in silence, feeling for a tempo that flows with the visuals. Sometimes I will play tunes from my music collection as I watch the film. I played Four Tet’s “Everything is Alright” to the film, FLOE, a number of times before I began sorting out what instrumentation I would use. Now, I’ve been focusing a lot on creating groove in every composition I write for film. Once I find that groove, I work out what instrumentation I hear and the rest just happens with lots of time to let the music breathe.
Q: What have you been working on while in Wilmington?
A: When I first arrived, I was madly working at completing the DVD authoring of “Head First” with local film editor and filmmaker, TK Turbo. Once the authoring was complete, I was focusing on the DVD design and then it was sent off for manufacturing. Just last week, I received the manufactured DVDs and they look beautiful!
Since completing “Head First,” I have been collaborating with local filmmakers on “Wilmington.” Through this project, I plan to capture some of the images and sounds that have inspired me during my time in the area. I’ve written two songs for the project so far … It’s gotten to the point that I don’t leave the house without my field recorder, just in case I can capture another new sound for the project. We’ll also premiere Matt Gossett’s silent film from “Wilmington” as I perform the music live during Cucalorus resident artist Shona Thomson’s presentation, “To See Ourselves as Others See Us.”
Thanks to the amazing staff at Cucalorus, I have also been fortunate to intern with a local cooking TV show, “Secrets of Coastal Chefs.” I’ve been learning so much from those talented folks about lighting, product shots, location recording, working with actors and writing scripts. I also worked as crew for a wedding video shoot, which taught me a great deal.
After the festival, I’ll spend two weeks focusing on creating my own silent films with the help of my Super 8 camera and inspiration from Wrightsville Beach. I plan to hand process the film using vitamin c and coffee grinds to see if I can pull off a more environmentally friendly way of hand processing. It should give the films a gritty look – which I like.
Q: Your project “Head First” will make its U.S. Premiere at Cucalorus 20. Explain how that feels and what your journey with the project has been like.
A: “Head First” has been a real labor of love that has taken me seven years to complete. It is a real collaborative effort, involving 11 filmmakers, 13 musicians and a multitude of engineers, film editors and photographers from all across Canada. I couldn’t be more excited … It’s always been one of my goals to not only tour Canada, but to see the world through sharing my music. The U.S. was the next step in making that happen. Europe is next.
Q: “Head First” focuses on various Canadian talents, whereas “Wilmington” will highlight talent from the Cape Fear region. What ingredients would you say make these two communities ripe for this kind of storytelling?
A: Silent film and music pair so beautifully together. I could spend my entire lifetime trying to capture the magic this wonderful medium brings. Each person has a unique story to tell and every community has many stories to share. Silent film and music help to bring those stories to life in a way people can relate to.
Q: We’ve loved having you here as part of the crazy Cucalorus family. Any highlights/anecdotes/friends from your time here that have stood out?
A: It’s a very special time. I can feel it in every inch of my being. I will be cherishing the wonderful memories we have created here for years to come … But it’s the people who have taught me the most here, from my wonderful artistic resident roommates, Ruth Paxton and Addison Adams, to the amazing folks who make the magic happen here at Cucalorus. This is such a supportive community. It will be difficult to leave this magical place when the time comes, although I know I will return.
Now that I’ve gotten a taste of this beautiful place, it won’t be long until I’m itching to get back to share the new project in the place where it was created.
RSVP to the LIVE Premiere of MacPhail’s “Head First” here!