Erika Kulnys photo
Photography by Bruce Dienes

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REVIEWS

ERIKA KULNYS Profile Article on Filly.ca  January 2007
by Shannon Webb-Campbell (The Coast, ARR, Filly.ca)

Ex-pat Nova Scotian songwriter/spoken word poet Erika Kulnys is artfully cementing her place in the history books of unsung artistic heroes of our time.

Erika Kulnys recently found a new sense of home in New York, yet it is the omnipresence of lost love which tugs at her heart strings and not necessarily the relocation which keeps the language pouring from her pen. "Heartbreak to me means the opening of the heart," the fiery, pixie-haired blonde muses. "The appearance of fault lines, the cracking, the painful and pleasurable combination of creativity and letting go of control. Heartbreak is a common theme in my life."

Kulnys is one seasoned globe-trotter, as the worldly artisan has lugged her library of songs, poems and ideas from South Korea, Ireland, Spain and Latin America, to various nooks and crannies around North America. "New York is a crazy place," she explains. "I have sung in the subway all night to make my rent. At the same time, I meet famous people and renowned social activists daily, who inspire me to keep going. Halifax is a much warmer and easier place, but New York is like cappuccino with Kahlua every day of the week."

By possessing the ingenious intellect and activist zeal of Ani DiFranco combined with the poetic scepticism of Leonard Cohen, Kulnys is artfully cementing her place in the history books of unsung artistic heroes of our time. Perhaps her mass appeal is too political, too edgy, or too vulnerable for the average listener, yet she has the ability to tackle heavy-handed issues which even newspaper headlines seem to steer clear from. Some of her lyrical subject matter boldly comments on social issues such as sexism, racism, rape, and homophobic leanings. Unfortunately mainstream radio doesn't necessarily seem ready to let the passionate, activist cats out of the bag. "I do not seek to incorporate my sexuality, gender and so forth into my artistic vision; rather, they are integral to my work and integral to my core as a person and the core of erotic creativity," says Kulnys.  "I believe that all creative work stems from a letting go of identity and opening to the world. Once we open our hearts and eyes to the beauty and suffering around us, we are freed from our own egos and open to digesting the world as it is really is."

The ferocious songwriter is unapologetic about herself as a creator and as a person. Her latest album Hurricane tampers with the ballad-aesthetic of early Tori Amos, as her achingly honesty, yet beautifully created craftsmanship is as vast as the North Atlantic Ocean. Spin the cheekiness of Dolly Parton with the overt sexuality of Kinnie Starr, then dash the toe-tapping rhythms of Newfoundland's Colleen Power to conjure up a sense of her multi-dimensional musical talents.

"I do not juggle song writing and poetry, they do acrobatics inside of me on a unicycle," she says. "I often write songs which morph into poetry and vice versa. I often derive inspiration from a single line or seed of an idea, either found in nature, found in my experience, observed in the world around me, or given by a fellow artist. I write in a number of ways. Sometimes, when I am in acute pain, a song makes its way out of the birth canal and arrives in perfect, bloody simplicity into my hands. Crying out to be held. Other times, writing is an extremely intellectual and discursive process."

Mother's soothe their children with the phrase 'whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger;' nothing could ring more true for this achingly talented writer and musician. Kulnys bravely speaks about being raped by a close friend in Venezuela, being gay-bashed and nearly gang-raped at age eleven while living in Guatemala. "All these experiences have shaped my perception of what it is to be female musician in a male-dominated industry," she says. "My Buddhist friend took a deep breath after hearing my story, and said, 'You, my dear, are a survivor.' His words really rang true to me. I have survived much in my life, and have also been incredibly privileged and lucky. I believe it is important not only for women, but for men, to combat sexism. First in their personal lives, and then in the public arena, and specifically in the world of music. I appreciate men who take action and address sexism in their songs and in the way they interact with women."

Kulnys views artists as composers, soldiers with the extreme virtue and duty to take the debris of daily life "through time and care and awareness, and cipher it down to its essential beauty and wisdom."


Creative and Courageous Kulnys     By Terry Paul Choyce

The Music Room in Halifax was packed to overflowing last Friday night for the cd launch of Hurricane by the amazing Erika Kulnys. Erika and her group of talented musicians wowed us for two and a half hours of music, most of it written by Erika. This 25 year old Halifax daughter is destined to be our next Sarah McLachlan.

For the last 8 years Erika has been travelling the world, going to school and experiencing the depths of human delight and suffering. Her songs reflect the pain, the ecstasy, and the hope of people everywhere. She sings song-stories about music on the streets of Northern Ireland, desperate hardship of a man in Brazil, the gratitude she felt in surviving a bus accident in Ohio, the heart break of leaving her girlfriend, and much more. Her music is a blend of folk and jazz, with some classical riffs mixed in too. She is an accomplished guitarist and an incredible pianist. And her voice is beautiful and unique. Combine that with charismatic stage presence and a winning smile, and Erika Kulnys will go far in the music world.

So where does the courage come in? Erika is very open about being a lesbian, having somewhat radical left-of-centre political views, and she goes to the poorest parts on this planet to search out people to sing about, to learn about, to share her life with. She is a petite woman with a huge drive to help others and to spread love and music everywhere. She is now living in Brooklyn NY, trying to have her music heard there. I sure hope many people hear her, because her message is important, and her music is world-class.

At the concert Scott MacMillan played a mean guitar to several of Erika's songs. Her Sister Aniko Lewton-Brain played violin, and she is also a major upcoming Halifax star. Her brother Nicky Veltmeyer, just 15 years old, blew us away with a song he wrote about being free. What a voice and personality! Other accompanists were Ryan Kotler, Keith Mullens, Matt Myer, and Shannon Lynch - all very professional. My only complaint is that Erika had to play the "tuning song" too many times. But the homemade cookies and apple cider made up for any lags in the show.

I've owned the cd Hurricane for several months and play it often on my program on CKDU. (88.1fm Sundays at 2). My favourite song is Thank You, but all of them are great. From the incredible photography, to the excellent musicianship, to the great production, this is a cd you want to own. To get a copy go to www.erikakulnys.com. And to hear a song go to www.myspace.com/erikakulnys. You will not be disappointed in this young woman who has the courage to express her views, and experience life in its fullness. Five stars for Erika Kulnys.


[Review of Hurricane]
Through song and music, she is dealing with the hard topics, not an easy task in these times, but a worthy one. Her songs kept my attention and her voice, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, was full of beautiful and surprising turns.

Ferron, Canadian Singer-Songwriter


Erika is fantastic! Her pure voice and natural presence expresses her heart and touches all the tender, hidden places in the hearts of the audience. Through guitar, piano, voice, and poetry, Erika shines like the sun and we are lucky to feel her warmth!

Diana Torbert, Pianist for Symphony Nova Scotia and member of the Rhapsody Quintet


Erika has such a compelling voice, with a range of timbres from warm and heart-piercing to light and carefree to beer-soaked blues.  Her guitar playing is easy and assured and not only sets the mood but occasionally adds something to make a song especially artistic.  Her covers are well done, but her originals offer something special: she occasionally inserts something unexpected, like a dynamic change to the subtle side—a break, a ritard, a sudden pianissimo—that gently but irresistibly pulls the listener in and quietly says, listen to this. Her songs are not only songs, but are poems, treating a wide range of topics and emotions.

Arnie Cox, Professor of Music Theory and Aural Skills, Oberlin College


Erika is a gifted writer and musician whose unique creations touch the very heart of you.  Richly blended melodies and harmonic structures give way to romantic lyrics and some of our times' best songs.  Erika is going to reach a lot of people and I am a big fan.

Duncan Macmillan, President Ander Music, Songwriter, Composer, Jazz Percussionist


Student Poetry Forum Reflects November 3rd Sentiments    
By Liz Logan, The Oberlin Review

Late at night in Oberlin, hundreds of students, maybe even thousands, curl up in their rooms writing poems in journals.  It is only on rare occasions that the wider community gets to watch these words come to life. Thursday afternoon's "Poets Against the War" reading was one of these spectacular occasions.   

Students, faculty and Oberlin residents gathered in Wilder to share their poetic protests. The poems were reflections not only on the Iraq war, but also on terrorism, politics, the Bush administration, the recent election and of course, Sept. 11. Readers not only shared their own words, but also peace poems by favorite authors such as Charles Bukowski, Yehuda Amichai, Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman, to name a few. 

Erika Kulnys-Brain, who helped organize the event in conjunction with the creative writing department, shared a particularly impassioned poem entitled "November 3rd," 2004. Kulnys-Brain explained that she stayed up all night to write the piece after hearing the results of the presidential election. At the end, Kulnys-Brain wrote, "Dare to stay open, don't concede."


INTERVIEWS

INTERVIEW WITH SHANNON WEB-CAMPBELL (of the Coast) for www.filly.ca

What inspires you as a songwriter?

In one word: heartbreak--heartbreak meaning the opening of the heart, the appearance of fault lines, and then cracking, and then the painful and pleasurable combination of creativity and letting go of control. Heartbreak is a common theme in my life, although I use the term to describe a wide array of experiences in which the heart opens like a flower and shows itself as perfect in its vulnerability. I meditate and find meditation a heart-breaking experience in which my heart is rendered totally open, and in that quietness and simplicity I find inspiration for songs and poetry. I am also inspired by feminist activist queer singers who courageously put themseves and their art into a sometimes cold and closed off culture of complacency and complicity. I am inspired by my lovers, by the erotic in nature, in my own heart and body, and by wanting to make a world where people are motivated by peace and love for each other. A boundary-less world of honoring each other and all our manifold gifts and beauty and shortcomings. I am also inspired by war, pain, and wanting to alleviate my own suffering and that of those I see around me: those on the street, those in combat within themselves and within larger political and corporate wars.

How do you juggle song writing and poetry? When writing do you begin with the intent that the language pouring out of you is for lyrical purposes or do the words take on a mind of their own, in which the result becomes the poem or the song?

Honestly, I do not juggle songwriting and poetry; they do acrobatics inside of me on a unicycle. I often write songs which morph into poetry and vice versa. I often derive inpiration from a single line or seed of an idea, either found in nature, found in my experience, observed in the world around me, or given by a fellow artist. I write in a number of ways. Sometimes, when I am in acute pain, a song makes its way out of the birth canal and arrives in perfect, bloody simplicity into my hands. Crying out to be held. Other times, writing is an extremely intellectual and discursive process in which I consider many variations of the same material, and may even take years to complete a song or poem. I recently re-visited several poem-songs that I had written in Venezuela the days after I had been raped. When I wrote them I was so discomfitted and despairing that I thought they were embarrassingly simplistic. Looking back at them, I am glad I did not throw them out as I had wanted to. I rehearsed them with my band, and they have a certain power in them because of the way they were written: in complete and total despair and darkness--the darkness that if entered with courage, can lead to light. See Lion for example:

As a wonderfully, visible lesbian (another common characteristic we share) why do you think it's so important to incorporate your sexuality, gender and so forth into your artistic vision?

I do not seek to incorporate my sexuality, gender and so forth into my artistic vision; rather, they are integral to my work and integral to my core as a person and my core of erotic creativity. I believe that all creative work stems from a letting go of identity and opening to the world. Once we open our hearts and eyes to the beauty and suffering around us, we are freed from our own egos and open to digesting the world as it is really is. I see artists as composters, who take the debris of daily life, and through time and care and awareness, sipher it down to its essential beauty and wisdom. Everything has at its core essential goodness, intelligence, wisdom, and as artists, we have the power to make this visible to the world through gently pulling people out of their monotonous vision, and opening their eyes to the divine. I realise you asked me about my sexuality and I went on a spiritual rant! That is because I see sex, sexuality, creativity, and spirituality as inexorably linked. Each is a way for us to grow personally and culturally, and a means to peace, joy, and enlightenment. So yes, being a lesbian and an erotic visionary is important because it is simply being honest about the integrative nature of art.

You seem to be poeming like mad, I'm wondering what you've been working on lately?

I have not had the opportunity to write a great deal recently as I have been occupied by changing diapers, meeting the love of my life, making friends with the Caribbean nannies, playing shows with my band, and having gourmet midnight sushi parties. However, I have been returning to old poems and revising them. Below are three newly revised poems.

What are some of the struggles you've endured being a female songwriter? I know in the past my band Oh, Beautiful! Majestic! Eagle! We've been given guff from our male counterparts for being an all girl ensemble. What's your take on sexism in music?

I met a man recently at a Shambhala Training and ended up telling him my entire life story at the coffee break, needless to say I missed some much needed cushion time! I told him of recent events in my life, such as being raped by a close friend in Venezuela, being gay-bashed and verbally assaulted by a crazy Australian man in Jamaica, and almost being gang-raped (see Lago Atitlan poem on my website) when I was eleven and living in Guatemala. All these experiences have shaped my perception of what it is to be female musician in a male-dominated industry. My Buddhist friend took a deep breath after hearing my story, and said, "You, my dear, are a survivor." His words really rang true to me. I have survived much in my life, and have also been incredibly privileged and lucky. I believe it is important not only for women, but for men, to combat sexism. First in their personal lives, and then in the public arena, and specifically in the world of music. I appreciate men who take action and address sexism in their songs and in the way they interact with women. The three men I work with, Adam Tagliamonte, Ryan Kotler, and Nicolas Veltmeyer are all EXTREMELY respectful of women, gender and sexuality differences, and actively support me in my personal mission to dismantle sterotypes and blow people out of their racist, sexist, capitalist shells by singing for peace and love. Being a woman travelling the world to study political folk music was no easy task. I was assaulted daily, and when I tried to learn reggae in Jamaica, all the men expected sex in return. When I recorded with an all-male revolutionary band in Venezuela, they took me for granted and never even gave me a copy of the CD we recorded. When I went to India to study folk musics, I was so aggressively assaulted by men that I became scared to leave the house and eventually returned to Canada. Living as a woman musician, or even just a woman, is not easy. It takes courage, persistence, diligence, and a committment not to give up. That's one thing I am blessed with: persistence. It has its downfalls, but in terms of working for social justice, battling prejudice, and making peace, it is definitely an asset to my life.

Who are your musical and literary influences?

A broad range of songwriting influences include Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ani Di Franco, Stan Rogers, Silvio Rodriguez, Bessie Smith, Patty Griffin, James Taylor, Jessie Winchester, Bruce Cockburn and Ferron. My contemporary music influences are Giorgio Ligeti, Patrice Repar, Laurie Anderson, Lewis Nielson, and Harrison Birtwhistle. My literary influences range from Shakespeare to Audre Lorde, from Yeats to Jeanette Winterson, from Adrienne Rich to Mahmoud Darwish, from the Bible to Marilyn Hacker, from Margaret Atwood to Jamaica Kincaid, from Rilke to Carl Phillips, from Marquez to Rohinton Mistry, and from Martha Collins to Katherine Hubbard. Below are lists of my favourite books and musicians:

Matilda, anything by Mahmoud Darwish, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Wrinkle in Time , The Duino Elegies, The Arrangement of Space, The Fact of a Doorframe , The Rest of Love, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, The Diamond in the Window, Autobiography of my Mother , The God of Small Things , Things Fall Apart, Voodoo Lounge, Sara and Kamila, Lydia Warner, Lisa Sloane, Naomi Morse and Elvie Miller. I also love Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Llasa, The Indigo Girls, Damien Dempsey, Sinead O'Conner, Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, Patty Griffin, old Sarah McLachlan, and anyone who's a crafty song-writer.

What have you been reading lately?

Lately, I have not had great opportunities to read, what with making love with cucumber-filled girls and working three jobs. However, I did read Mahmoud Darwish's new book, The Butterfly's Burden. The first poem is incredibly beautiful--all about exile and returning home, being broken and whole, and integrating the ways in which we are parted politically and personally. I also read the New Yorker in the bathroom and political magasines when I got to bookstores. Mostly I read craigslist online looking for free furniture or rides to Montreal.

As quite the well-beaten globe trotter, how has your experiences travelling influenced or effected your writing?

My experiences of travel ARE my writing. Most of my writing revolves around the interconnectedness of people around the globe, the commonalities of our suffering and our yearning for peace, and of my own experiences synthesizing the monstrous harshness and equally powerful benevolence of our world. My song, Angel, is about a man who was deported from his home in New York to Venezuela, his country of birth, for castrating the man who raped his eight-year old daughter. He was living on the streets of Caracas getting beaten up and robbed every night and he befriended me because I spoke English and would talk with him. His name was Angel and the song is about all the Angels of the world, who have good hearts and have committed grevious deeds; who are around us all the time in the form of the homeless, the criminals, politicians, those who make war, and our own perceptions of ourselves as flawed but perfect in our imperfections. The song is about exposing the angels that we don't see because we don't take the time or have the courage to look closely enough. My experiences travelling the world enable me to hone the lense through which I see global culture, the commonality of injustice everywhere, and a universal desire to love and find home. See the lyrics for Angel and see www.myspace.com/erikakulnys for the music.

You've shared the stage with quite the accomplished artists, Ani DiFranco, Josh Ritter and Emm Gryner being most noteworthy, what are your future aspirations as an artist and as an individual?

I feel eternally greatful to have grown up in Halifax among so many talented musicians, the MacMillans and the Torberts to name a few. I feel also so lucky to have gone to United World College and studied composition, and Oberlin Conservatory, which led me to my current career. I had always thought I would be a documentary filmmaker or a diplomat, but my education led me to believe that music is my life-long path. My future aspirations are simple: to become famous enough to bring peace to the world through music, to bring music to the underprivileged, to open the eyes of the overprivileged, and to always learn and grow as a person. On my 26th birthday I will be celebrating my quarter century retrospectrum (hee hee) featuring amazing musicians from around the world playing and performing my art and music and dance and writing from age five to age twenty-five. I hope to have a celebration in Halifax as well. My personal aspirations are to always keep an open heart and to always be generous with my love and my art.

Last time we spoke you mentioned your idea to flee to New York was spurred on by a romantic interest (oh, the things we do for love). How have things in the most densely population city in North America been treating you?

New York is a cray place. I have sung in the subway all night to make my rent. At the same time, I meet famous people and renowned social activists daily, who inspire me to keep going. Halifax is a much warmer and easier place, but New York is like cappuchino with kahlua every day of the week.

Do you have any advice for any aspiring writers/musicians?

My advice to aspiring writers/musicians is simple: always believe in art, not in a egocentric way, but in its power as a tool to heal the world.


Epitome Interview with Erika Kulnys
National Organization for Women
(2003)

Epitome
You graciously traveled from Oberlin to play at Lydia's for the NOW Fat Tuesday Fundraiser, are you involved in NOW?

Erika Kulnys
I am not formally involved in NOW, but am interested in becoming involved. I want to attend the April 25th March To Save Womens' Lives in Washington. In the past I have been involved with women�s organizations in Canada, such as The Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, and I play benefits for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). I was thrilled to come out for the fundraiser, both because I support the cause, and because it�s great to get out of the isolated college environment and into community.

Epitome
Oberlin is quite a ways from home; how did you get there?

EK
Yes, Oberlin is quite a ways! Whenever people at home (Nova Scotia) discover that I study in Ohio, they inevitably make some comment about cornfields. But I feel very lucky to be here. I found out about Oberlin from an old friend, Giles, who is also from Nova Scotia. He went to Oberlin and came home raving about a magical place where everyone was an artist and an activist and it was more normal to be queer than straight! It sounded ideal and I applied right out of high school, but then ended up attending the United World College in New Mexico. The United World College is an international school where you study and live with students from 80 countries and do crazy things like mobilize a search and rescue team at 3 am to go out into the mountains and find lost hikers. I applied to Oberlin after New Mexico and they gave me enough financial aid to move here to study music composition and creative writing.

Epitome
Your stage presence speaks of quite a bit of experience, or an uncanny innate comfort with performing. Which is it?

EK
I've had quite a bit of performing experience. I�ve been singing at peace protests and Take Back the Night Marches since I was a kid with my mother and my grandmother who are both singers and feminist leaders. I only started pursuing a professional career in music when I took a year off from Oberlin and worked in Nova Scotia. I played a lot of queer events as I was working for a queer youth NGO at the time. My band happened to be all straight guys, so we jokingly called ourselves Erika and the Lesbians. Takes a certain sense of humour, I think.

Epitome
Lyrically, you cover a gamut from lesbian love/relationship to women finding their voice (including a song written for your mother). What is your writing process?

EK
I think there are two ways I write. The first is when I�m feeling particularly impassioned, whether it�s about a larger injustice, or my own bleeding heart, and it just pours out of me. I often write music and lyrics almost simultaneously at these times and my writing functions more as a release than any kind of intellectual activity. These songs tend to be either my best or my worst songs, because they are so wrought with emotion. The second type of songs are usually more narrative and I spend more time thinking about the lyrics and the music. Often, I�ll come up with a guitar lick I like, and separately do a lot of journaling, which I�ll then condense into lyrics. Finally, I�ll put them both together.
I am most inspired to write songs when I am in a community of song-writers, and when I am alone with the ocean.

Epitome
How do you see music in terms of your life's calling?

EK
I have always been happiest when playing music. And I�ve always wanted to work towards social justice through music and art and poetry. I think that music can not only educate, but also can mobilize people to action and create a kind of solidarity that is awe-inspiring.  I went through a period of time when I felt that music was not an active enough way to fight oppression, but I think that just providing people with joy, whether or not they find a political message, is good for the world. So in response to your question, I think music is my life�s calling, whether it�s performing, or teaching music to children.
I had an incredible composition professor in New Mexico named Patrice Repar who showed me the power of music. She wrote pieces about apartheid in South Africa, and created an incredible interactive piece performed by all the students from the Balkans served to unite them, and to educate the rest of us through stories and song about their lives. Patrice instilled in me the sense that music can be a way of life and encouraged me to continue my study of composition.

Epitome
Suggestions/advice for women trying to find their voices?

EK
That's a big question for someone so young! I guess I'd say this: everyone's voice is important. Everyone has something different to say and you don't need to be scared to say it. As women, we are always told to be modest and meek and not to express our stories and emotions. I think that just having the courage to do so can be an incredibly transformative experience. And finding a community of artists who will support you helps. Even if you don�t have that community yet, just keep creating, and don't let your own or anyone else's judgments prevent you from opening up and taking a risk. If you have the courage to do this, eventually you will find a niche and a community.


Selected Appearance list for Erika Kulnys

  • Pete's Candy Store, NYC (2007)
  • The Living Room Lounge, NYC (2007)
  • The Sidewalk Cafe, NYC (2007)
  • All Asia-Bar, Boston (2007)
  • The Brooklyn Lyceum, NYC (2007)
  • The Bitter End, NYC (2006)
  • CBGB's Gallery, NYC (2006)
  • Central Cultural, Sao Paolo (2006)
  • The World Social Forum, Caracas (2006)
  • Sin E, Dublin (2005)
  • Laveries, Belfast (2005)
  • Oberlin Folkfest (2005, 2004, 2002, 2001)
  • Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (2004)
  • Cleveland Music Festival, Peabody's, Cleveland (2004)
  • The John S. Knight Convention Centre, Akron, OH (2003)
  • RAINN Benefits, The Dionysus Club, Oberlin College (2003)
  • The Ship and Anchor, Calgary, Alberta (2003-5)
  • Freetimes Cafe, Toronto (2003)
  • Woodstock, Seoul, South Korea (2003)
  • BattleAxe Folk Pride Show: The Marquis Club, Halifax, NS (2002)
  • The Khyber Club (2002)
  • The Cat in the Cream, Oberlin, OH (2001-05)

Hurricane has been featured on the following radio stations:

  • CBC – As It Happens
  • Oberlin WOBC
  • Dublin South FM
  • RGIN Internet Radio
  • Belfast NVTV
  • Venezuelan Community Radio Stations