Celebrating the Launch of ‘Custom Melodies’ Website at Chinatown Soup on Orchard Street
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You may have heard of artist Grey Gersten and his “Custom Melodies” exhibit – a successful interactive exercise in writing anonymous biographical songs by New Yorkers, which showcased at the Mmuseumm last year. Well, now he’s taking those songs digitally, giving the tracks a more accessible and permanent home on the internet, at www.custommelodies.com. We caught up with the man behind it all on the eve of his launch party at Chinatown Soup, to find out more about the project.
Bowery Boogie: How did you come up with the idea for “Custom Melodies”?
BB: Ha. What’s your criteria for writing a song? How did you go about finding these biographies?
GG: Songwriting is about listening and being open. You have to commit to the moment and resist the temptation to judge what is happening.
During Custom Melodies, participants filled out a “Custom Song Application” which featured questions about lifestyle habits, recurring dreams, childhood memories. I asked them follow-up questions until I heard something that felt like a lyric or a fragment of a story. Then I sampled the participant saying/singing the lyric and built a song/beat around it. Every song was written in 10 minutes and played/recorded live in one unedited take. The goal is not to create a comprehensive biography of each person. Custom Melodies is about capturing a moment or feeling in an immediate unfiltered way. Each song is an emotional time capsule.
BB: Can you tell if someone is making up a story? Are people more likely to divulge and be honest because of the nature of the project?
GG: I don’t think it matters if someone is making up a story. Everyone’s idea of reality is very subjective. There is a lot of truth revealed when someone lies.
People innately want to open up and be emotionally expressive. Sometimes we get self conscious around friends because we want to maintain a certain image. The anonymity of Custom Melodies creates an atmosphere where participants feel free to be honest and vulnerable. Each participant discards their legal name and creates an imaginary band name. Together we create an audio recording, there’s no photograph or name attached. It’s just a feeling and no one has to be held responsible for it. The feeling doesn’t have to fit into someone’s idea of their identity, it doesn’t have to reconcile with societal pressures.
BB: Have you included every story that was submitted, or did you have to narrow it down?
GG: Every song that was recorded is being released. I accidentally pushed the wrong button a few times and didn’t record some of the songs. As of Feburary 2, 2016, there are 110 songs, over 7 hours of music released. Each song is performed live in one unedited take. Every song you hear is a recording of me playing it for the first time. One of the rules was “no second take.”
BB: Do you ever see recurring themes in the biographies you encounter?
GG: I see a lot of recurring themes in the feelings that were expressed. I invite you to explore the material and discover your own themes.
BB: Has your own music or the collaborations you’ve been involved with (TV on the Radio, Sharon Van Etten) influenced you in this project in any way?
GG: Right before Custom Melodies, I created an imaginary pop band called Eternal Lips and released an EP and some music videos. With Eternal Lips, I was trying to sincerely engage the perfectionism of pop music. I wanted to see if I could make something that could be easily commodified. It was a really interesting experience, and some of the songs were on the radio a few times. Engaging with the “music industry” made me want to pursue something radical that couldn’t fit into that infrastructure. Custom Melodies explores new ideas about what a song can be, how it’s made, and how it’s shared with the public.
BB: Do you have a favorite track?
GG: No favorite.
BB: What’s the ideal takeaway for your listeners?
GG: My friend Melati from Young Magic said that the Custom Melodies website made her love human beings. Hearing that feedback was really satisfying because that’s what I felt when I was writing the songs and creating the website. Laura Poitras said “art has the ability to build structures of empathy and universal condition”; Custom Melodies aims to utilize the universal language of music to build a structure of empathy and universal condition.
The website launch party is tonight at 7pm, at Chinatown Soup Gallery (16 Orchard Street). You can learn more about the project here.