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An interview with Billie Stimpson - Support Worker/ Musician

December 24, 2018

 

Tell us about yourself in your own words 

My name is Billie. I’m a non binary person. I live in Brisbane. I use music to unpack most of my shit and I think I expect it to do a lot of work for me and you know it’s not really able to do everything that I expect it to but it helps. I am also involved in support work which is something that’s really important to me and that I’ve been doing for a long time and hope to be able to do forever.

 

How long have you been playing music and how did that start?

I’ve been playing music since maybe I was 21. I’m 27 now. Back then I didn’t really have much of a sense of who I was or who I might be or any of the specifics of my life so music was for me, maybe not trying to get away from something but probably as a tangible thing that I could give to myself that gave me a sense of identity. 

 

You’ve said that you have a fraught relationship with music, can you elaborate on that?

I think I suffered really early on from being a perfectionist which was unfortunate in lots of ways because the first bands that I played in we’re all about being really good. I had to be really good at music in order for people to take me seriously. I think that continued for a long time and a couple of years ago I realised that I’d been in a space for a really long time where I was spending a lot of time with people that I didn’t necessarily want to be spending my life with but that I identified as “good musicians” and I was actually really deeply unhappy. It was really painful to think that I would spend the rest of my life trying to make “good music” or music that was a particular standard, but that was having such a toll. You get to a certain point and music is not enough to be who you are or give you a whole sense of self that really helps you explain and articulate and explore your experience. I think it just got to a certain point that the things that I would hear in the spaces that I was in were so awful and I suppose I have a huge amount of privilege in always having access to music spaces, but only recently I really understood that there was something quite drastically different in terms of an experience that I had with the people I was making music with that they certainly had no sense of and so there was maybe an expectation that I would just be fine or okay with the dynamics that would happen and I wasn’t and I didn’t know what to do about it so I kind of had to stop music. 

 

What has been your experience of discovering your gender identity in those kinds of spaces?

So when I first joined Idylls, I didn’t really understand mental health. I didn’t get that some people didn’t have that eating away at their bodies all the time and so I played in Idylls for a year and then we did Prayer for Terrine and I didn’t really understand how to be me within that dynamic. Being a front person (which I never really considered myself to be), playing music that is quite intense, confronting and loud, I think people were reading my body and my presentation and what I was doing in a way that I felt was really problematic and it wasn’t what I was trying to convey to people. I had to step away from it, it was too hard, there was stuff that I needed to unpack. So I took a lot of time away and just stopped music entirely and that was really nice. I did a lot of community radio in that time which was nice and also I went and started some counselling and I ended up doing some cognitive testing and finding out that the way that I process information and the way that my brain works is just a little bit different. That was really useful because I think for a long time I had been really hard on myself to be smart in the ways that other people expected me to be smart, or to be able to do things that other people assumed that I could do that I actually couldn’t. That was really exhausting and making me want to be dead in lots of ways and after engaging with a bit more theory and feminist texts and conversations with people there was just a moment when I realised that stuff around gender and transness had been constructed and presented to me in a way where it felt inaccessible to me. I thought that experience is something that belongs to other people and you’ll never meet those people and those people don’t actually exist but it’s this entirely different other set of ideas and assumptions and experiences that just you don’t actually have - it’s people that are supposed to be trapped in the wrong body and they’ve always known that they were supposed to be a woman or whatever.

 

Where are you now with your experience of gender in these spaces and other spaces?

It’s getting easier to just be comfortable and to just know that my experience is my own and that it’s real and legitimate. I think even in that time when I stepped away from music and before I was able to come back and use music to further unpack and solidify and explore myself I think I spent a really long time trying to get it. Trying to find all of the ways that myself was and to be able to articulate them to myself and other people and at any moment be like ‘Yep, this is me this is how it works, these are all the political constructs that inform that and this is the power dynamic that I exist in’’ and to be able to grasp that to be able to know all of the inner contours and that was fucked… and I get to a point where I think no one can ever actually know themselves. No one else can ever actually know themselves or anyone else. We’re all just in this kind of messy situation and who I am is entirely dependent on the people that I have around me and I just haven’t had people around me who have been nice and caring and loving and I want that. So over a long time I’ve just been able to settle more into myself and that was when I was able to step back and to realise that Idylls could potentially be radical or a really important way to contextualise and give expression to some of the stuff that was going on for me. That was really useful I think because I’m quite a neurotic person and I’m fairly repressed in lots of ways I think. I always want to be someone who doesn’t have experiences of intense mental health so part of me, the really controlling and critical part, is always looking to just be like ‘no you’re fine, you’re very on the level, everything is stable, you don’t need to be someone who has to have these intense outbursts of expression or creativity’. Part of me never wants to do music because it exposes the fact that I have things that I need to process and exposes my vulnerability in lots of ways but when I’ve gone a long time without incorporating those modes of expression into my life it’s always fallen apart and I realise that if I don’t allow myself that space and if I don’t give myself that platform for processing and verbalising and externalising, there’s a lot of pressure that builds up internally and that usually leads to crisis and I don’t fucking need that.

 

How long have you been playing saxophone?

I can’t even remember when I joined Idylls to be honest but I still don’t necessarily play saxophone. I use the saxophone. I was at Sun Distortion, Chris’s old studio one day. We were just good friends and I was there talking to him and it was in a time when Idylls was trying to find a vocalist and Chris was thinking he’d really like someone who can also play saxophone so I said well I guess I know how to use my mouth to literally just make a sound with a saxophone which I proceeded to do for him and he rolled on the floor laughing and said you’re playing sax, you have to play sax. I was like oh okay.

 

What did that do to your outlook on being a perfectionist?

It helped I guess. It continues to be very confronting because people often give me compliments and say the sax sounds really good and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t remember the parts, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m poorly practised, I don’t even like it that much but other people do and it’s nice texturally. Before Idylls I’d always been playing bass. My first band was a kind of shitty melodic hardcore band and I just wanted to play music so looked for the people I could immediately access that I could do that with. Then I played in a band called Seahorse Divorce which was a lot mellower but probably still over technical and over complicated but that was nice. I played bass in that band. Ironically I think it was that band that really made me realise that it doesn’t matter how good the music is and it doesn’t matter how much I enjoy the music that we’re making there was something that was inherently wrong in the dynamic of that and it made me pretty sick at the end of it. Luckily when things kind of came to a boil up I was able to just stop all of the things that I was doing without too much difficulty. This is the first time that I’ve ever written lyrics and performed them in front of other people so that’s cool.

 

You’ve played in a few bands and put out a number of releases. Is there anything that you’ve learned about the process of recording each time?

Definitely. I am really deeply attached to the things that I write and I think that I’ve got a very particular way of writing that is in large chunks of text - kind of prose-ish I guess. That doesn’t necessarily fit in the format of Idylls. I try and fit a lot into the limited space that’s provided and I was really quite resistant to changing that or cutting anything because all of what I was writing was really really important. When we recorded Prayer, I wasn’t a vocalist I didn’t really contribute much to it, I wrote a little bit but a lot of it was just composite lyrics and composite vocal deliveries. 

 

So that might have been part of why you had a strange relationship to the project?

Yep! I still didn’t really understand how to make my own space within that and how to be comfortable in that. Recording The Barn where it was entirely my vocals I think ultimately it was a sense of needing to give up some control for the sake of the songs and allowing the trusting and caring relationship that I have with Chris to produce me, which had never really happened before. I had to give up some of the fixation and some of the control I had over what was coming out and what was being put down and allow him to shape some of the stuff or to re-interpret it. I still had the permission to just write all the things that I had written and maintain that they were still the lyrics still no matter what’s being recorded, no matter what’s happening in the actual song. The printed lyrics always remain the text, the idea, the underlying theme. All of that is really important and really critical to keep because otherwise I think a lot of it is missed. I’m trying to navigate what may seem like really complex stuff so to only have the words that are recorded in the song seems like it would miss a lot. So finding that balance I think and refining that has been a really big learning curve because I get pretty moody when I’m getting told to cut something for the sake of the song. I need time. Now everyone understands that. So say we’ve written a new song and I went in to demo it and I was in a really bad mood already and Chris was able to say ‘I know, it’s okay, I know that these are all the feelings that are associated with your experience and I know at the moment you’re really unhappy and you’re probably really annoyed and I’m not telling you that you have to do this but I know you will also get to this other point so let’s just do that together’. That’s really nice and I’m able to trust that process a lot more and feel supported in it which is really nice.

 

What sort of themes do you explore through your music and lyrics and what inspires your songwriting?

When I wrote a lot of the lyrics for The Barn it was quite early on in - I don’t think it’s useful to call my experience something like a transition but - an unpacking or a coming to terms maybe. So it’s probably a mixture of a lot of stuff around embodiment and the ways that we experience life being entirely determined on our material experience and the bodies that we have and how they inform how we relate to other people and other people relate to us. Sort of combining that subjectiveness and that physicality with trying to unpack some of the underlying ideas particularly in what you might call modern society. Ideas about individualism and competitive individualism and how being a singular disconnected self that is enterprising and trying to win or rise above and dominate the world that’s around you is really harmful and inaccurate and riddled with really problematic ideas. I feel like that’s kind of interesting because in a sense having an identity that’s not preconstructed and projected onto you means that you have to grapple with a sense of individuality and self hood and maybe there’s an expectation that you are supposed to be more individualistic or more self concerned but actually that doesn’t make any sense to me. I think that who I am and how I am is entirely dependent on everything else that is around me so it’s really important to be constantly re-investing and re-exploring where you are socially. There’s a lot of unpacking and trying to find out what motivates me and what motivates other people and trying to move beyond the cliches of how people expect that to be. I was expecting it to be able to do a lot of things and at the end of that process that I would be able to do a lot of things.  I still can’t do those things. But that’s okay because I think it’s still a nice record.

 

What is your creative process and how has it changed over time?

So earlier in the year I started HRT, so I’m on hormone medication now which means that the importance of being able to take care of myself both physically and emotionally and being really stable means that it is different. Earlier on before that I was quite happy to tear myself apart to find whatever the core motivating idea or assumption or need or feeling was and I would let myself get quite emotionally battered up in that process for the sake of producing this thing so that I could find it and expose it and make something out of it. That can lead to some really interesting stuff but it’s not safe to do that and it’s definitely not safe to do that now. I am more forgiving of myself and kinder in what I do and what I expect in how I write so it takes a lot longer to write and I don’t write a lot. I often need to spend a lot of time in my head to find what’s there and to find what’s waiting to be written. I don’t have to push myself so hard with that and I think now I just allow things to come up when they come up and be quite forgiving if I don’t know what a lot of that stuff means or I don’t necessarily know how to translate that into something poetic or aesthetic. I think the concepts that I’m wanting to explore or unpack or the themes are a little bit different now which is interesting. I’m still trying to process a lot of the time that I spent as a young person. I think that’s going to be happening for a while. I’m trying to make sense of that but I think being kind and gentle and not overly demanding and not reducing myself to just a raw material to make something out of means that the ways that I create are going to be different and probably a lot healthier which is nice.

 

What is the biggest obstacle you face when expressing yourself creatively?

The biggest thing is that I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be someone who has to do it. I don’t like what is says about me to be externalising this stuff, but it’s really important not to oppose that critical voice and say that it’s wrong, because that voice took care of me for a very long time. That voice resulted out of a few different and parallel experiences which all culminated in the fundamental rule that you had to be able to take on the world on its own terms and play the game as it was made. Essentially you couldn’t be different and you couldn’t be fragile and you couldn’t be vulnerable and you just had to be really good and you had to be really strong or you would die. Or be abandoned. I got through a lot with that voice and then once I got past my late teens and early twenties I realised how complete that rule and how absolute that voice was and that was really painful but I also have to give that rule credit I think in its protecting me. Now I just have to be kind to it and acknowledge its continuing presence and what it has done, both good and bad. But it doesn’t want me to do this certainly. It wants me to be very normal and even if it’s allowing me to explore all of the stuff I’ve been exploring, it still doesn’t necessarily want me to be creative because being creative isn’t that useful or productive and it’s still sort of weird and pointless or contrived. That voice doesn’t believe really that I’ve got stuff and that I need to honour that stuff. Working with myself is absolutely the hardest thing. I mean there is dealing with people at shows, there’s dealing with what I think other people’s expectations of me might be, but the longer that I’m able to live in me now (and I’m not going to call that an authentic self because I think authenticity is a bullshit measure of human experience) but the more that I’m able to just be an ‘out’ me I guess I worry less and less of what other people think of me and and what other people’s expectations are. Particularly in music and being a front person. It is a hardcore punk band and I still don’t like to say that because of the assumptions around it and a lot of the associations with that. That’s what the band is and that can mean so many fucking things and I’m less willing for that to be controlled and determined by other people. So really it’s easier to work with other people, it’s harder to work with myself.

 

What do you as an artist stand for?

A lot of people don’t necessarily get to go through life and know what the values they hold are. I still don’t necessarily but I work with social workers and am surrounded by them and their whole practice is about knowing what their practice framework is and how that relates to their values. Which, I’m not a social worker and have never necessarily had a chance to articulate what my practice framework would be, but it means that I’ve had a chance to think about that a little bit more when I’m in supervision. So I think that what is important to me and what I stand for as an artist is using the things that you create to be able to take care of yourself and other people better. I don’t know if that fits so completely into ideas about community. Community is really important to me but I’ve become a very solitary person, in little bits by choice and in little bits because doing community is hard. So whilst it’s important I need to spend heaps of time by myself and that’s okay. You can do community in lots of ways but I think it is still important to put my creative work in the context of ‘I do want to be a better person’. I want to be able to care for myself so that I can care for other people more. I want to constantly be working on that and for the stuff that I make to add to that because if it’s just making cool shit that people think is cool shit then it’s not very worthwhile. I think my main value is using music in order to be kinder and more self aware and more understanding of other people’s experiences. To be able to more deeply listen and value other people’s experiences and recognise when they are different to my own. To recognise when I don’t understand them or when it’s not for me, or when I’m not supposed to be able to situate myself in the expression of someone else and respect when I’m being invited to experience something and when I’m merely being asked to listen to it. To be able to offer that to other people as well and realise that they do respect that as well. That’s a really beautiful and really important thing so if my creativity isn’t part of that ongoing process of not necessarily becoming better but having more capacity to respond to myself and other people then it’s not very worthwhile.

 

What is the best piece of advice you could give to young women and queer folk who want to make art or music or just be seen and heard?

I think having relationships where you’re not always extending yourself to other people is really important. So understand when people aren’t reciprocating the care or the space or the control that you might be allowing them. So if you really want to play in a band and you’re making lots of compromises in order to do it, I understand that’s really important and it’s really hard to get a foot in the door, but be reflecting on that all of the time and be measuring what your relationships are and if you’re being given back what you’re giving out. If you can work to a point where you can stop doing that so much and you can stop overextending yourself then that is really crucial because it will not be satisfying until you can do that. Also if you need to not do something - don’t ever fucking do it. If you need to not play a show, don’t play the show. If you need to not be at jams, don’t be at jams. If you need to not write or not perform or not practice, and just go and do something completely unrelated, go and do those things. It’s always fine. Take care of yourself. I don’t think music how it’s historically been particularly in DIY spaces is a particularly trauma informed space, so if you’re someone who has had experiences of trauma or are experiencing ongoing trauma, you don’t need to sideline that. Caring for yourself is more important than producing something. It’s okay if you take a really long time to do things that seem to take a short amount of time for other people, because a lot of the time, other people don’t really understand how long certain things can take. If you can give yourself that respect and that care and that space, it will work so much more in your favour and I think other people will learn from the respect that you give yourself as well. A lot of people won’t be giving themselves that same respect and that will be an important lesson for them so it’s important to give yourself because there is such a low level of emotional literacy in so many scenes and we need to build on that. Otherwise it’s just not going to be accessible and it’s not going to be possible for people who have a harder time with some things.

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