Sarah Allen Reed: An Interview

Sarah Allen Reed: "I am not an illustrator, nor am I a musician, or even a DJ or publicist. I'm a storyteller — a cartoonist more specifically..." 

With a body of work merging disciplines and transcending genres, Sarah Allen Reed's art could be described as a rapidly expanding universe of visual and sonic imagery and narrative. We had a chance to chat here about Sarah's art, music, and more. Check out and catch Sarah weekly on Radio Dark Tunnel.

Weirding: I like how your choice of instrumentation often lends songs or musical passages with a dream-like quality. It's like where there is a fine line between something that a listener might recognize and something entirely unearthly. Where does the inspiration for this approach come from?

Sarah: To be completely honest here, it's not an intentional choice, any more than the way I utilize white ink in my drawings or layout a page in relatively predictable fashions is an intentional choice. The methods are governed by the boundaries of my mental illness, and what goes on the aural canvas is a product of the fear and panic that I need to get out of my head.

The music I create is very much a reflection of the world I see, and the world I see is often distorted by my mental illness. If I'm doing my job as a producer and composer correctly — at least with these specific projects — you're not hearing a dream. You're hearing what it sounds like to be afraid of sounds — and to be afraid of the world that makes them.

Weirding: So when you are creating, do you feel more like you are composing and performing music from the outside looking in — maybe like a conductor — or do you feel more like you are on the inside of the song looking out —maybe more as a character within the song?

Sarah: Neither; I'm telling the story from the writer's chair. Everything is storytelling, point blank. I am not an illustrator, nor am I a musician, or even a DJ or publicist. I'm a storyteller — a cartoonist more specifically. Everything else is secondary. The only difference here is that I’m not telling a story with words or pictures — I’m not controlling the pacing with panels or comma-induced pauses. I’m telling it through notes and the spaces between the notes — through tempo and tone and timbre.

In cartooning, you use the style and iconography that fits the story. The same is true for the stories I’m telling through sound. And for most of my stories I turn inward.

Weirding: Do you feel like you have musical reference points that you tend to use as landmarks?

Sarah: Hell, I listen to bossa nova and city pop in the studio, and I’m blasting Bill Evans right now at the day job, but I wouldn't call those "landmarks". As far as I'm concerned, I primarily make soundtracks — in the shape of dark ambient or grind, noise, and black metal — for stories, "movies" that don't exist. I just use what sounds suit the story.

Weirding: What are those stories about?

Sarah: Things I know. Usually the shit I write involves emotions and experiences I deal with on a daily basis — suicidal ideation, mental illness, sorrow, loss, anger, isolation. And so I tend to construct sounds based around both the stories I’ve built and the underlying emotions and subject matter. The rest, I suppose, is a byproduct of how I hear sound.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a bitch when it isn’t colored with the distortion of autism and hallucinations. So I tend to use art to communicate what I can’t communicate to neurotypical people, because I don’t have access to the means of communication that the rest of you have — or even sometimes the means to communicate with the other neurodiverse folks in a way that’s effective enough to convey these emotions and feelings.

Weirding: And to get there, you’ve developed your own sort of sound library.

Sarah: So to speak. You’ll see me reach for a foley pack or any of the other sounds I’ve recorded for percussion and then distort and mix them into a DAW on top of or beneath standard drum samples before you ever see me reach for a drum set.

Part of that is cost, of course. I’m poor and usually nomadic. Drums are expensive and usually require a living situation where you don’t have to worry about noise complaints in order to utilize them. Whereas Linux, LMMS, and Audacity are free and you can pirate the samples that you can't find for free with relative ease.

But the other part of it is because I’m trying to convey how I hear the sounds of the world around me. That low hum in the background of most of my tracks, for instance — that isn’t something that I pull out of a dream. That’s the low hum that I often hear at the times I don’t want to. These aren’t nightmares. And these aren’t dreams. These are just the ephemera of the distortion that I understand as “life”.

Weirding: You've produced a significant body of work in the visual arts and often your songs seem to have a visual element — where the listener might be able to visualize a scene unfolding or a character coming to life. Talk to me about how your visual sense and your musical sense relate to one another. Do they always get along? Do they antagonize one another?

Sarah: My senses do antagonize, sure. But it’s less "each other" and more "me". Every single brain cell I have makes attempts on my life on a regular basis. To a degree, every drop that comes from my pen, brush, voice, and instruments are just the remainders of the blood from the internal hemorrhaging that comes from every single fiber of my being repeatedly making breaks for the big red button. That blood then seeps out of my skull and into your senses. And I take that blood, dip a Speedball 513EF in it, and draw pictures with it and try to make a living as best I can.

Insofar as my visual lexicon goes… it’s much the same kind of procedure as its musical counterpart. I often see memories as panels and still images with a narrating droning voice above it. And so I tell stories in panels with text bubbles large enough to annoy half of the comics world. But human faces look alien and strange to me and eye contact is both difficult and terrifying. So I heavily distort faces or utilize extreme closeups to make drawing them easier, and I use shots of the human eye to communicate terror or unease.

And so on, and so on. My language is built upon my misunderstanding of yours, and the fear that comes from knowing the kind of violence that society tends to dole out on those it doesn't understand.

Weirding: So I've got this clear: you are saying that you see memories, like of things from your life, literally as panels in a storyboard?

Sarah: Honey, I'm a cartoonist, not an animator. Not storyboard panels — panels in a comic book. In all fairness, those are basically the same exact thing — just in different disciplines. But still, the distinction is necessary here. Animators usually have college-level educations and reasonable wages.

I know I usually speak in poetic language, but that isn't a metaphor. It's just how my mentally ill brain works. Same kind of shit that causes things like "random shit that doesn't exist that often hides out in the corners of my room" or "sirens or other loud noises make me immediately tense up and reach for my knife".

A lot of cats seem to think that's "interesting" but as far as I'm concerned, if a nice pill from the white coats makes the interesting and quirky go away... well, I'm not sure it counts as terribly interesting. Hell, I wish it would stop. It would probably make my life a lot easier to be able to think like a functioning human being.

Weirding: Shifting focus a bit… I'm very interested in your work as a DJ. There is this almost mythic notion of the late-night DJ and I'm interested in the importance that you give to DJ-ing and its relationship to the rest of your creative work.

Sarah: I don't view DJing as part of my creative work, so to speak. It's praxis — a practical outlet for my oft-uttered phrase: "We take care of each other around here".

I'm not on the air to glorify myself. I'm not on the air because it makes money. I'm on the air to give a voice to bands, acts, and — most importantly — people who weren't exactly wanted on any other platform. Not wanted either because of the prevailing attitude in the industry with regards to marginalized voices — see how black voices tend to get consistently low reviews on Pitchfork, for instance — or because they're too weird. To be quite frank, the reason both The Forest At Night and Identity Null exist is because I saw that there were no spaces for people like us, so I made one.

To be quite honest, If I had to choose between being either the frontwoman of fifteen different projects or the disc jockey in the booth promoting everyone else, I'd pick the latter. I would not have picked a career that involved me sitting in a darkened room in front of a board wedged at a forty-five degree angle for hours at a time if I had much of a desire to do things like attempt to pass as neurotypical at afterparties.

The primary reasons I do both is because I have bills to pay and because I refuse to let anyone who has had the same kind of experiences I’ve had feel alone if I can help it. Contrary to popular belief, my shit-kicking self has a soft side buried somewhere in there, and it’s that softer side that usually causes me to steel myself enough to put in the work and do the outreach.

I suppose, looping back, that’s part of the reason why my music sounds dreamlike or alien — I’m not turning outward with my influences, I’m turning further in.

Weirding: What do you mean?

Sarah: I can do all the outreach and community-building I want, but when you spend an entire childhood in a cycle of isolation and abuse and the an entire adulthood in the same cycle with a side helping of poverty and homelessness, you tend to not have reference points. And if there are people who give you those reference points they tend not to stay for long.

I suppose I could change that, to some degree. Maybe my constant career-long insistence upon doing things like being on the radio twice a week and trying to do outreach and charity work, when I really should be focusing on promoting my own endeavors, are me attempting to reach outside of myself a bit. I have found quite a few fellow-minded cats through the show. But I’m pushing thirty, and after a while the indifference you are shown becomes comforting and the isolation becomes your home.

Besides, I'm a boring shithead whose life story would make Dostoevsky want to edit it to be less depressing. Someone whose mannerisms were ripped from a hard boiled detective or burnt-out middle aged spy in a dime store novel. You all are much more interesting anyways — at least to me. It's not me who's working the magic. It's all of you. I’m just alone in a dark room at an ungodly hour lending my voice to make those also up at that lonely hour feel just a bit less alone. And doing my best to help the other weirdos climb the ladder that the rich white straight boys ripped the rungs out of on their way up. And quite frankly, that’s where I fit best.

Weirding: Last thing. When you say that everything is storytelling, point blank — when and how did you come to this conclusion?

Sarah: Less "conclusion" more "way of being in the world". I've literally had two goals since I was eight years old. One is to sit on my fat ass and draw comic books all day. And two is to never give a single fuck about anything else.

I'm an antisocial suicidal jackass and recovering alcoholic with an ex-wife, a troubled childhood, a history of deviant and criminal behavior, and a keen distrust of anything with a pulse. The only role models I had that fit that description were writers. I just naturally figured this was the only kind of profession that would have me. I mean, Jack Kirby beat the shit out of the Nazis that came to his office to complain. Wally Wood drank himself to death and blew his brains out (as did Hemmingway). Steve Ditko just locked himself in a room and slowly went batshit.

Those are my people right there.

No one ever sat me down as a kid and told me I had to become a socialite and a charlatan in order to succeed as a writer. I just got told that I sucked at drawing, I sucked at singing, and all of my work sucked and I'd never be successful as an artist. I'd end up dead or in jail. And that just made me more determined to keep writing and drawing and singing to tell everyone to fuck off. I feel like if some kind soul would have sat me down and told me: "You don't actually suck like everyone says. And you can become an artist — that's fine," I would have just become a murderer or a teen suicide like I was supposed to. Shit, there are a lot of days where I wonder if I made the right choice.


Sarah Allen Reed

Cartoonist. Author. Musician. Diogenes's Daughter. Undisputed Queen of Goblins.

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