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Craft Is Life: in Conversation with Quinn Christopherson (Part II)

Musician Quinn Christopherson standing against the backdrop of snowy Alaskan mountains in an ALL WE REMEMBER undyed organic cotton scarf, flannel shirt, and twill pants.

Emma Sheffer, 2023

Continued from Part I of our conversation with Quinn Christopherson. Please note, the below interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Jacob Victorine: I wanted to jump back a little to talking about clothing and family history. I remember reading that your great-grandfather, Frank Hobson, was a skilled violin maker and that both your great-grandmother and your grandmother were knitters. I was wondering if you could talk about what craft has meant in your family history.

Quinn Christopherson: Craft is life for my family. My mom grew up with my grandma sewing and knitting all her clothes, and my grandma the same way. On my dad's side of the family, my great-grandma Laura Wright had her own business making our Alaska native parkas, and she patented her pattern in 1952. But, if you think about it, she never needed a patent before, and had to do that to protect herself. This is just something we've been doing forever and, all of a sudden—this happens with a lot of the ways that colonization affected us, all the way from land to homes to our designs. So, she got a patent in 52, Alaska didn't become a state until 59, and she outfitted people like Elvis and Willie Nelson and all kinds of people along the way.

When she passed, my great aunt Sheila took over the business and she still runs it today. In that way, my grandma taught me to sew. I've always loved making clothes, altering clothes to fit me better, and repairing clothes—making them last. She taught me all of that. It was another one of those things where I didn’t realize how important it was when I was learning it, but it's so important to what I do today. It's about being intentional and making things you want to wear until you can't anymore; I love that. I just got a new parka from my aunt to wear in a music video coming up.

It is really important because, sometimes, when people think of native people outside of Alaska, it's almost like we're this thing of the past. Even when I hear land acknowledgements—I heard one in New York and it is nice to be acknowledged—but they were talking about native people like we weren't around anymore, and I was right there, you know? I'm like, “No, trust me, we're here.” We look like you, we're wearing Arc’teryx, too. We’re modern and we're still here. I'm just thankful that my great aunt is still here making our parkas to show and continue our culture. That's the only reason I know how to make them today, so I'm definitely going to pass that on if I ever have kids.

"I've always loved making clothes, altering clothes to fit me better, and repairing clothes—making them last."

Musician Quinn Christopherson pulling off an ALL WE REMEMBER organic cotton flannel shirt with snowy Alaskan mountains in the background.

Emma Sheffer, 2023

 

JV: In a previous conversation, you said that you made the one that is photographed for your album, is that correct?

QC: Yeah, I did make that, and that's not even a parka or an atkuk. There's a lot of different names for it depending on where you're from. That was just a jacket I made out of old blankets that I got at the thrift store. But I have made my own atkuks as well.

JV: What you were saying about land acknowledgements and the ways in which American society erases native peoples really hit home. Even as a white Jewish guy, I've sometimes had that reaction with land acknowledgements where I wonder about the balance between action and words. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this. Acknowledgement isn't meaningless, but if there isn't action that moves with it, it potentially continues the stereotype of indigenous peoples as being of the past versus people who are living, breathing, raising families, contributing to society—people who have been capitalized upon and whose work has often been built off of.

QC: I definitely agree that. With acknowledgement, you need action. Land acknowledgement is a good start, but some people have asked me, “Well, how do I do one?” And, my usual response is that you don't, you have a native person from the area do it for you and you pay them—that's action. A lot of times you can find a whole group of native people there. They can do a dancer or performance or a song and show you exactly why you're acknowledging that land, and you can put a little money into their pocket for the night. To me, that's an acknowledgement. If you can't find a native person near you, then you don't have to do that. But they're around and there are so many of us. I just think we can do more than say, “Hey, we're here. Thanks.” You know?

JV: Yeah. It's something I've been thinking a lot about in my own life. I don't know if you’ve read Braiding Sweetgrass by chance?

QC:  No.

JV: It’s written by Robin Wall Kimmerer who's a botanist, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and practices forms of indigenous plant knowledge that come from her culture. She merges those worlds in Braiding Sweetgrass, which mixes mythology and science and all of these different things to illuminate her experiences as an indigenous botanist and to talk about ways of knowing that are often disregarded by Western culture and societies that are driven by “progress” and profit. It's a book that I often teach excerpts from in my classes, because it offers a holistic perspective on responsibility and sustainability.

But, I've also been thinking more and more, “What does the next step look like?” I think it's a little different because she has permission to share all of these stories in her book. And, I imagine she put the book out there with the intention and awareness that people would read it and share it. Atthe same time, it's something that I've been thinking of—that sharing is a start, but that can't be it.

QC: It feels like that's just good knowledge to share, and to take that into what you're teaching is really cool. Obviously, you're crediting her and all that. I think that's probably what she wants—to share that knowledge. Those are the kinds of things that make the world a better place in the grand scheme, teaching about how to treat the land. In that sort of vein, even when we go berry picking, we don't pick every last berry off the bush because we're going to leave some for next year. All of that is meant for everyone who wants to know.

"In that sort of vein, even when we go berry picking, we don't pick every last berry off the bush because we're going to leave some for next year. All of that is meant for everyone who wants to know."

Musician Quinn Christopherson standing on top of a highway guardrail against the backdrop of snowy Alaskan mountains.

Emma Sheffer, 2023

 

JV: Yeah. She writes about similar things. I know that's something people who forage talk about as well, in terms of you don't take the first that you see and you don't take the last because it means, if you come back, that plant, that berry will still be flourishing. Something I love about natural dyes is that perspective and process as well.

In terms of mainstream culture, at least in places like the US, we’ve lost a lot of the appreciation of process, slowness, and an understanding and connection to nature. I try to be careful about blanket statements and, also, it does seem like that type of connection is something that is a part of many indigenous cultures. It’s something that colonizing nations have worked to destroy at worst and ignored at best to everyone's detriment.

And so, I hope we're moving our way back there. I think it's important, even with things like natural dyes. It's important to say, “We didn't create this dye process. We are doing a dye processes that humans have been doing in one way or another for 6,000 years.” And, if we’re talking about natural indigo, that indigenous cultures across the world developed independently of one another using various forms of indigo plants or, with parts of Europe, woad in terms of dyeing things blue. That form of history and acknowledgement is important because, sometimes, brands act like they've created something that has been done for tens or hundreds or even thousands of years.

QC: Totally. I think that is why I gravitated toward ALL WE REMEMBER, because it looked to me like every piece just took a lot of time. We are in this era right now where we want everything and we want so much of it. Even with music, people want you to put more music out. Whatever you had is not enough. You need more, more, more content, content, content. It's like, “Oh my gosh. What about just sitting with things sometimes?” In Alaska, we move kind of slow here. I talk slower than most people. When I go to the east coast, I know people are just waiting for me to spit it out in that way. I'm just not in a rush. I always just love the way the dyes and everything look like we're all taking our time to make something cool. I'm excited whenever I get my pieces dirty to dye them later and see where else they can go.

"Even with music, people want you to put more music out. Whatever you had is not enough. You need more, more, more content, content, content. It's like, 'Oh my gosh. What about just sitting with things sometimes?'"

Musician Quinn Christopherson in an ALL WE REMEMBER undyed organic cotton t-shirt and twill pants.

Emma Sheffer, 2023

 

JV: That form of transformation and life story is interesting and wonderful—accepting that life is constantly changing, that the world is not static and that everything is constantly moving. Acknowledging that with our clothing is important to us because we've, unfortunately, gotten to a space where we expect our clothes to last forever and to never bust a stitch and to always stay one color. And a lot of that has been to our detriment physically and culturally. We have a deep fear—not all of us, but the US as a whole—of death that we don't really deal with. And it manifests itself in a lot of these different ways.

QC: What a trip. My family has been making clothes out of moose hides and stuff. I have a vest that's over fifty years old, and I wore it yesterday to play a show and I’m going to repair it soon because it needs a little bit of TLC, but I’m going to have that for another a hundred years. You just can't get anything better than that.

JV: That makes me think of the meaning and the stories—we were talking about stories earlier—that have been passed down with that vest, and also the care you're putting into that object through mending it and that other people in your family have put into it through mending it over time, that collective care.

QC: It's definitely a piece of our family.

JV: Because Emma photographed you for us to go alongside this interview, I was wondering if you could talk about what it's been like to collaborate with your partner and, and what it's like to live and work with another artist.

QC: It's amazing. I didn't think art could be a job until I met her. I was always an artist, but I thought that was just for fun. And then I met her and she's an artist for fun and for work and my mind was blown. I used to do construction before I did music, so I was always just trying to make an honest paycheck. I thought that's just what you do, you do the work and it's not work you care about, but you do it and then you get to do the fun stuff. She taught me that it doesn't have to be that way.

She went to art school and that's so crazy to me to begin with. I would've never gone to art school. I just thought that was wild. There’s so much value in putting art first, and making things, and making that your priority. I wouldn't do anything I do today without her teaching me the importance of that. And she's not a musician, she's a visual artist. She draws and she does a million things. She makes all the furniture in our house. That dresser she made. Everything I'm using, she's made. It’s been really cool because I used to think if you're a musician and you date another musician, that's probably not a good idea. But then when I met her, it was like, “Dang, she's an artist and I'm an artist, but we have different mediums and that makes both of our mediums so much stronger.” I've taken that lesson with me, because even with music, I can collaborate with another songwriter, but what if I work with another artist who doesn't make songs? I think that'll be better if I bring my strength and you bring your strength. Collaborating with Emma has taught me how to be a stronger collaborator in general.

JV: There's a lot that we can learn from other disciplines. A lot of the technical knowledge that I use for ALL WE REMEMBER in terms of design and patternmaking, I got from getting a Menswear Design degree, but a lot of the process that I bring actually comes from poetry, which is why I also have to credit my wife. She's an artist and a poet and has been a great editor, co-collaborator, and co-conspirator over the years.

I just have a couple more questions. One thing I wanted to hear your thoughts on more is what role conversation plays in your music. When I think of your songs, they're very conversational. Obviously, you're singing, but there are also portions of your songs where it feels like you're talking to the listener.

QC: I do feel like my songs are a kind of a conversation. Even in my most recent writing, there’s a lot of conversation. I think that comes from the songs mostly being about people and about my experience with people or myself. I always have that inner voice in my head talking anyway, so it's just comes out like that. But mostly, it's because of the times I'm talking with people and they inspire me, and just thinking about what I learned from everyone—it feels natural that way.

JV: There's less artifice there, which is indicative of your music. I think of your music as being very sincere. I try to stay away from the word authentic as much as possible because it can mean many different things, but I think of your music as being sincere and genuine and vulnerable, which is unique these days when, especially within internet culture, performance or irony rules the day.

QC: I'm glad you see the sincerity in the songs because I’m honest in my music and I really think it comes from my family raising me that way. But it also comes from making these songs in the moment—not for anyone, but for me, keeps me real. I started writing these songs when no one was listening. I wrote “Raedeen,” which is a song about my sister Raedeen. I wrote that song when no one was listening. And I put it out when five of my friends were on the internet listening. Ten people at the dive bar heard me sing it. And that was really just for me. Now it has over a million streams. I never ever would've saw that coming. I always think back like, “Wow, should I have changed her name?” But, at the time, it was not anywhere near my head that anyone was going to hear that. It's crazy to me to think that, but that's the only way I knew how to do it, to just tell it like it is. Some days I think about, “Oh, am I saying too much?” And I just say, “Well, forget it. That's the point. I can't say enough.”

These are my stories. Of course, if I'm telling stories, I'm telling other people's stories too. I told my sister's story because it was also my story, but our stories can evolve. That is the magic behind songwriting and poetry, is that I can tell a story and five years later I can look back on the story with new empathy for that person or myself, and I can retell it. Stories evolve as we grow. I'm not afraid to tell a story because if it changes, I can change it. I have that power and no one can take that from me.

"Some days I think about, 'Oh, am I saying too much?' And I just say, 'Well, forget it. That's the point. I can't say enough.'"

The footprints of musician Quinn Christopherson's hiking boots in the snow.

Emma Sheffer, 2023

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