"For me, the most important thing to have is a safe space so I can be open and vulnerable as I create. If you have supportive band members who let you experiment and understand that great rewards come from a lot of failure first, anything is possible."
Over the years Tracy Keats Wilson (Dunebuggy, Broken Mouth, Dahlia Seed, Ringfinger, Positive No, etc.) has played many defining roles (singer, musician, artist, writer, poet, label owner), and while doing so, graciously shared her ideas, her passion, her music, (and her things) with lots (and lots) of friends. Sharing a space, whether it be a personal construct, or a spatial construct, can be a vulnerable undertaking. Tracy has been able to do all of this with tremendous impact and grace, both, within and outside of various independent art and music scenes via the various groups of friends and fans that she has bridged together over the years.
In the past year, she and her band Positive No released their final album "Kyanite,"(a digital-only release) on Bandcamp, and played their final triumphant show with influential (and reformed) '90s post-punk band, Jawbox, along with new project, Hammered Hulls. 2019's Kyanite was written and performed in equal measures by all final members of the band, and it was created as an intentional piece to be listened to all in one sitting--it is a beautiful album, and one of their best so be sure to check it out. J Robbins (of Jawbox) worked with Positive No since their very beginning formations in 2011, recording their first EP, "Via Florum," in his studio Magpie Cage (among other later releases by the band, including "Kyanite"), and so, it seemed natural that Jawbox would also be there, playing a part, within their finale at their farewell show, at The Broadberry in DC, as well.
The band, Positive No, in their final formation. Featuring Tracy Keats Wilson (bottom-right, vocals, synth), Kenneth Close (top-right, guitar), Coldon Martin (top-left, bass), and Keith Renna (bottom-left, drums).
Earlier this year, Tracy announced that she was researching a possible book idea, and looking for feedback around live shows that had occurred in Hoboken, NJ, in the 1990s, and has (as of late January of this year) been writing an 'every few weeks' newsletter called "Turntable Report," via TinyLetter, that she started right after the new year (sign up here: https://tinyletter.com/turntablereport).
"My goal is to be like those overzealous world travelers who will try any food at least once, but to music. I am hungry to listen to as much as I can in a lifetime and then share my favorite discoveries from this daily exploration." @turntablereport via Twitter
This week we speak to Tracy Keats Wilson, of Turntable Report: a long-time record collector, label owner, musician, writer, and artist. We share her brand new Spotify playlist which features the women and artists who have inspired her! Check out this in-depth interview where we talk to Tracy about her newsletter, Turntable Report, future book plans, her forever-love of music, her inspirations, and the bands and music-making that have made up the larger part of her life in songs.
Listen to and share Tracy Keats Wilson's playlist via Spotify:
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Carly: The first time you ever played with other musicians was in high school in New Jersey, and you happened to get connected with Melissa York from Team Dresch. Tell us about that experience. What types of songs were you trying to create--or sounds had you envisioned when you first started meeting with other musicians?
Tracy Keats Wilson: My introduction to Melissa came in high school through a member of the band Rorschach around 1990. He had mentioned she was a drummer and was the only other girl he knew that seemed to be as excited about music as I was. The difference was, that I wasn’t a musician yet. It wasn’t until right after high school that I moved to Hoboken, and eventually, had two roommates who played guitar. They gave me the best advice: don’t try to play it well because you won’t, at first. Keep messing around on the strings until you find sounds you like. A husband and wife creative team across the street from me had mentioned that they were starting a band and it happened that Melissa was the drummer they wanted to play with. This band went on to become Sugarshock.
Everyone knew I was just learning to play guitar but they convinced me I should at least join them for a practice. I was truthfully terrified. I grew up singing but in this band they wanted me to play guitar. I could barely play anything and I definitely had not learned how to tune it and how to plug it in to an unfamiliar amp--no less, play standing up. Everyone had a blast and were so kind but the reality was, I wasn’t ready to be in any band yet. My only goal that night was to survive the experience with a shred of dignity. We recorded the night of sloppy, chaotic art-punk and I still have the tape to remind myself that we all have to start somewhere. In 1990, I was nowhere yet.
You have so many lived experiences from the '80s and '90s related to music due to working at Flipside Records in Pompton Lakes, or, through meeting various members in the music scene. What can you tell us about this time in your life, and what were you listening to.
Music leads an interesting dual-life because a musician creates this thing that captures a moment in their life and then it gets handed to the universe and the fresh ears who discover that music give it a second life/meaning. For this reason, I really consider the records I have collected over the years to be a scrapbook of my life; marking time, personal growth, people I know, and the places I have been. When I finally started writing my own music, and putting the poems I have been writing since I was a kid into song form, my personal discography grew to become a diary of my life starting in the early ‘90s.
My Flipside years of '88-'93 were a period of intense self-discovery and learning. I was transitioning from a kid into an adult. I was learning as much as one human could about all genres of music while finding my own voice through singing and playing guitar. I was the indie music buyer at the record store then so this started me down a lifelong obsession with tracking new music and playing matchmaker for our customers to help them find the records of their dreams.
Our customer base was wildly diverse so for every indie rock record I was hustling, I was also trying to make the hesher happy, the straight-edge kid stoked, and keep the goth fan gloomy. I didn’t have a ton of time for going to movies or reading then as I was living and breathing music around the clock. If I wasn’t working at the record store, I was stuck in traffic getting to and from work as I listened to WFMU or my own mixtapes, shopping at someone else’s record store, or I was at a show in NYC or at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Since the age of 16, music has been my around the clock everything.
One of your prime focuses right now have been the experiences that you had while living in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the 90s. You mentioned that you were brought to Hoboken your first time by a future band member of your soon to be band, Dahlia Seed. Moving to a new city can be hard! What was your first two weeks like living in Hoboken, and, was this the first time you moved away from home to a new city?
In the summer of 1990 I was going to move into my first apartment in Hoboken with our guitar player’s sister but she backed out last minute. It was a mad scramble to find someone new and I ended up living with a Flipside customer who was a stock broker that as it turns out had a serious coke addiction and anger issues when it came to watching sports on television. It was a disastrous first year in that apartment. I had however been going to Hoboken nearly weekly for several years before I ever moved there so it was a surprisingly natural and easy transition. I had already established a lot of friendships in town over those years and those people helped to make me feel welcome. Hoboken was a strange anomaly because it felt like my home the first time I ever visited there.
I grew up imagining NYC was where all the action was and where I needed to be but by 1990, that wasn’t my truth. I found that excitement and inspiring community on the NJ side of the Hudson river. The funny thing was I was so thrilled to be out on my own and living exactly where I wanted to but every time I mentioned it to someone in town they were confused because they just assumed I had been living there all along. I eventually found new roomies and they would help alter my path in life when they allowed me to play their guitar and join a band. I feel so lucky to have had the encouragement of this community to go from fan to a musician. My life would have been very different if it weren’t for the nurturing I was given to not just stay involved in music but to make it.
You have mentioned that Pier Platters (in Hoboken, NJ) was the second store that you worked at (after Flipside in Pompton Lakes, NJ), what were your favorite and least favorite things about working in record stores over the years--do you think that informed a lot of who you are today?
There isn’t much I dislike about working at a record store--they are my forever happy place. If there was a shop I thought would be around for a really long time, I would request to have my ashes kept there after I die. Just like any other job there are frustrating moments, long days on your feet, difficult customers (mostly men who don’t think women know anything about music), and terrible pay, but from a pure satisfaction angle, I could talk about music all day and every day. Record store customers are a very diverse group of people, especially now with more women than ever collecting, and there is always something to learn from these fellow music fanatics. I think what makes music so addictive is that you can’t possibly know it all in a lifetime because there is so much of it to explore. If I could listen to every piece of music ever created at least once, I would. I know it isn’t possible but my life is dedicated to that effort and to keep growing that knowledge from others. Music allows you to step into someone else’s shoes for that song or whole album and I truly believe every time you experience someone else’s life and feelings, it grows compassion and empathy. This is why I believe music is so powerful and can change lives.
The only ongoing issue I still deal with in record stores is sexism. Men either avoid asking me questions because they naturally assume I can’t help them or as a customer, they target my husband as the person to talk shop with and I am invisible. I don’t bother fighting to win these people over any more and I just do my own thing. I get that I am not the norm but the default assumption should never be that I need everything explained to me either. Mansplainers are like one way streets and there is no conversational, two way traffic that includes them listening and learning from me or any other woman.
What was it like being a music intern (at Telestar Records) and music sales (at Caroline Distribution) during this era? The music business has changed so much since that time period. Do you see anything that has gone away from that period that you are glad to see gone, or things that have carried over from that period that you wish would go away?
The only thing worse than me in the early ‘90s trying out for a band for the first time was interning for a great record label when I had zero experience on a computer. I was supposed to help with data entry however I had no idea how to type. We didn’t have much computer training in high school and at the record store, we hand wrote everything and faxed in orders. I may have known music and been great at talking to people but it is embarrassing how lacking my basic office skills were in my early 20s. I lasted at Telestar for maybe two days. In hindsight it is comical and sweet to be a totally green kid trying to find their way in the music industry but at the time, it felt like a daily ego reset to zero. Knowing I had this total lack of office skills, it makes it hard to believe I would be hired at Caroline just a few years later. A friend had tipped me off that they needed a temp at the sales assistant desk entering orders. The person hiring was my old sales rep at Caroline when I worked at Flipside so even though I didn’t even have a resume, he took a chance and hired me. The person I was temping for shockingly passed away so I was hired full time within a few months.
I started at Caroline in 1996, figured out the whole computer thing…sort of… and stayed there for over ten years. I worked my way up to regional sales manager and had the privilege of working alongside some of the greatest independent record labels and artists of all time. This was the last hurrah for physical media and to many, a golden age for indie music. Digital music began creeping in by the early 2000's and as that side of the industry grew, the world of distributors like Caroline were forever changed. Sales of records, CDS, and tapes dropped and in turn a lot of people who weren’t changing with the times lost their jobs. I held on for another 15 years but it only got harder to survive and the key to staying vital in the industry wasn’t knowing music and having long established relationships with stores, publications, labels, and artists but to be technology savvy. As someone who is a music person first and foremost, I was an industry dinosaur by the time I was 40.
The music industry is especially hard for women as it traditionally is a male driven world so while this is slowly changing, the sexism and misogyny is still very much an issue. The only way this will improve is if the number of women and other minority groups continue to grow within the business to help change it from the inside out. I don’t know if I opened up the doors for more women but my accomplishments in sales and marketing, my helping to turn new artists into household names, showed my male counterparts that I was at the very least an equal if not better than the men doing the same kind of work. It seems ridiculous but just by existing and sticking it out in a place where you are the sore thumb, it forces a new normal where a minority voice becomes a part of the conversation.
The hard part isn’t being passionate about something you love, it is continuing to show up even though you don’t always feel accepted or understood. These people may not want you there but if you dig your heels in to claim your spot, they will eventually be forced to make room for you. Over time, more people like you will have an easier time being accepted because people like you helped open that door a little wider for them.
"The best surprise from leaving the music biz after 20 years in indie distribution is feeling more enthralled by new music than ever. No more worries about sales or marketing, this time my ears do all the heavy lifting." @turntablereport
Dahlia Seed's last show.
When you eventually began singing with Dahlia Seed, did you have any interesting stumbling blocks with that band and how did you overcome them? What would you bottle from that experience if you could (or what parts of that experience will be with you forever--good or bad)?
My stumbling block in one sense hasn’t really changed. I am a confident songwriter but my execution on a guitar or bass is still pretty clumsy. I never mastered the skill of singing and playing an instrument at the same time. I started in Dahlia Seed as a singer and a guitar player but that didn’t last more than maybe a year. I was more interested in singing live and I discovered I really enjoyed being able to run around and move without the hindrance of an instrument. Free of a guitar I became a very different kind of singer. My singing strength came from my entire body rather than just my chest and throat.
For me, the most important thing to have is a safe space so I can be open and vulnerable as I create. If you have supportive band members who let you experiment and understand that great rewards come from a lot of failure first, anything is possible.
I was lucky to play in a band where the members never made me feel stupid or bad about the kind of performer or player I was. I was free to be me which is the greatest gift you can give a person. I wasn’t just learning how to be a musician in Dahlia Seed, I was discovering who I was as I became an adult, and being introduced to the tender balance of staying true to self while in a collaborative setting. This isn’t true to just our band, anyone in a band for a long time learns some really important life lessons about working with others, self-worth, ego, networking, finances, logistics of travel, marketing, and how lots of different kinds of people doing different things can come together to make amazing things happen. To a fan it is all about the music but any musician knows the art often feels like 10% of the experience and the rest of it is all business and relationships. What a plot twist to a starry eyed kid expecting a non-stop rock and roll party lifestyle.
Your band Positive No's last album "Kyanite" was a fond farewell to your fans. I have so many favorite tracks from the years of listening to your band: what are yours?
This will likely not be the answer you are hoping for but it will be an honest one. I don’t have a favorite song. Not for Positive No or anything I have ever done. I am not hard wired to bask in my accomplishments. I am proud of the art I have made but I can’t hear them with fresh ears. Listening to my own songs is like trying to enjoy dead skin I have shed. I rarely revisit the music I have made because I don’t find pleasure in it. Performing them is one thing because they become new as they are filtered into a present tense but recordings are more like mile markers for me. Songs capture a time and place but as someone who is always looking to push forward, I don’t want to go back. I appreciate the work I have done but I don’t revel in any of it. The thrill for me has always been the journey of creating something, not the final destination in its recorded form.
What was the experience of putting this album together like: and did you know going into Kyanite that it would be the band's final album?
Kenny who is both my husband and creative partner new that this would likely be the final record as we were making it. We had been playing music under this name for 8 years, gone through a lot of line up changes, and it felt like we were hitting an organic end of the line. Half the band was going through some big life changes and we knew that touring would not really be possible. There was no point in moving forward with the band if we couldn’t be and do all the normal things a band does to carry and support new releases.
The reality for me is that I am nearly 50. My body went through a pretty traumatic event when I was hit by a car in 2011 and in turn, the touring life is physically pretty challenging for me. I live with low grade chronic pain and don’t have the ideal stamina to be in an active band. I am a very physical singer and I don’t want to do anything half fast. My body was telling me it was time to take a little better care of itself so as we wrote Kyanite, this was all in the back of my mind. I knew this record would likely be my last ROCK record and I wanted to choose my parting words thoughtfully. It was honestly an emotionally devastating record to make because it was like singing at my own funeral. On one side we have a record that represents the 8 years we made getting to this point as Positive No but also personally it was me looking over 30 years of making music.
Without sounding too dramatic, it was humbling to realize that the person I had defined myself by for my entire adult life was transitioning into someone else and this was the final chapter of that book in my life. It is still something I am coming to terms with and trying to digest in an already challenging and scary year.
Kenny and I have been working on new music at home this year but it has been a very slow and painful process. We are in the middle of learning a whole new language and writing process as we go from playing in a loud band with other people into computer software sound engineers on top of me being unable to sing what and how I would like to. For all of these reasons, Kyanite is no longer just another record, it is a shrine to a formal self.
When did you start your record label, Little Black Cloud. Is the label on hiatus, or do you think that you will still use it for anything you create in the future (or wish to create)?
The label started in 2007 when I was releasing my solo album (Ringfinger, "Decimal"). I like making music but I hate pitching my own music to others in hope that they release it. I don’t like being my own hype person so creating a record label for myself allowed me to release music without trying to beg someone to do it for me. Ironically Magic Bullet ended up releasing the LP version but for the past decade, I have not shopped my music around in hopes of a record deal. LBC ended up mostly being a celebration of the music my friends make while also allowing Positive No the ability to self-release everything we did. Along the way it just stopped being fiscally responsible to keep it alive. I was spending thousands of dollars to produce very small runs of records and pay for marketing with almost no real return on that expense.
Most of the artists I released never toured to support their releases so there wasn’t a sales driver to help get this music in front of fans. There are fewer indie distro channels getting records into stores. The PR cycle puts a band out in front of people for like a minute but especially in today’s political climate, some huge crazy story every hour pushes attention away from little records and all eyes are on our country fighting for its life.
Digital music earnings for an entire label catalog in one month would barely cover the cost of a small pizza, so while the songs are still technically under my label and available for streaming/purchase, the label is no longer active. I know art is more important than ever during these awful times but I can’t afford to lose thousands of dollars with every new record we put out. Anything that Little Black Cloud "releases" at this point will likely be just digital tracks for whatever Kenny and I do next.
You are currently writing a monthly newsletter called Turntable Report. What prompted you to create the newsletter?
A really incredible thing is happening right now. Musicians can hear in real time what other musicians are creating from every corner of the world via the internet. In turn there has been an exciting cross pollination of musical genres that we could have never imagined 20 years ago. This global cause and effect has really rejuvenated my interest in new music. As much as the business side of the industry is in chaos, creatively speaking there is a renaissance taking place and as a music fanatic, it is impossible to not want to talk about this abundance of interesting music.
There is now a growing community of music writers sharing their discoveries and together we are helping form a new support group to these smaller artists. The reality is that along with all the other massive music industry shifts taking place this year, we are also losing well established music publications. With fewer trusted places to discover new music, this burgeoning newsletter network is helping to fill that information gap. This is basically a comeback of the fanzine culture from the ‘80s and ‘90s but in a new format with links that allows fans to hear these records with a simple click and hopefully if they like it enough, fans will buy it. My bi-monthly newsletter highlights my favorite new music discoveries along with links to music related news stories, shops, books, film, and a quarterly playlist.
Turntable Report channels my music addiction into something productive that others can benefit from. I spend 20 hours hunting for intriguing new music from a host of sources each week so you don’t have to.
In having to navigate new social and societal norms in a pandemic: what things do you miss the most, and are there any surprising things that have now become a part of your daily or weekly routine while staying home?
I miss it all. I miss friends. I miss family. I miss hugs. I miss taking in culture with other humans. I miss playing music loudly in a room with others. I miss seeing live music, record shopping, dancing to DJ sets, eating out, museums/galleries, going to bars, hot French fries, and soft serve. I love being around other people so this is a nightmare for someone like me who has been going out and doing things in noisy, crowded spaces for decades. Even though I am so lucky to have a partner I love, a great home, and I am still employed, I feel deeply alone and lost. I worry for our country and a nation struggling to get by. I can’t say I am used to this routine, even after 6 months of it. Like a lot of people, I am taking it day by day but my version of one foot in front of another is one record after another.
What are you listening to?
That is what my newsletter [Turntable Report] is for... (*wink)
Sign up for Tracy's newsletter (run, don't walk!) here: