The Stranger just premiered the new video for my song Strong Swimmer, along with this really BEAUTIFUL write-up. The response - in emails, direct messages, tweets, Instagram posts & texts - has been unbelievably moving and powerful. It made me think that maybe I should use my news page here for an actual bloggy-type post and share some back-story about how the video came to be.
As good things do, this video project took time to come to fruition...
Over the past couple of years, on tour and at home, I've met a number of young people in the midst of really painful gender identity (and in some cases mental health) struggles. And I've known for a while that if I ever made a video for my song "Strong Swimmer," I wanted it to be for them. But I wasn't sure how to tell their story in a sensitive, meaningful and transformational way. Not yet anyway.
Enter my young niece Mackenzie (now 14), who lives here in Seattle. In talking with her about all of this stuff it became clear that these ARE the questions teenagers are asking these days - everywhere (maybe even more so in super liberal Seattle?! I'm not sure). Anyway, I told her I wanted to do an art project around it and wanted her help, but I didn't have a very clear vision yet and she wasn't all that compelled. She's a super creative kid though, and around that time she was just starting to take up visual art. She'd started drawing these characters - all different blends of gender traits, clothing styles and names she'd made up. It was becoming her main creative outlet and I thought it was such an interesting reflection of all the questions facing her age group. She gives all her characters similar facial features, but one day a character is named "Kenny", the next it's something like "KenKen," or "Paloma" or "Misell" or whatever persona she feels like giving them, gender norms be damned! I found it fascinating. And the drawings were SO GOOD.
THEN...Halloween 2017. I asked Mackenzie what she was dressing as and she replied "one of my characters." I was like "Whoa, cool! Can I see it?" She showed me this amazing drawing of a sort of gender-neutral kid she'd named "DoodleKen" wearing an outfit she'd dreamed up, complete with a cape and a sword. It turns out she not only drew the character, but she SEWED HERSELF A CAPE(!) and MADE HERSELF A SWORD(!) out of a yard stick & duct tape, and went trick-or-treating as her own self-made super-hero!!!
I immediately thought "holy smokes! THERE'S our video concept!" Because why shouldn't kids get to completely create their own identities these days? And once they get through all the muck and pain and uncertainty, the identity they create gets to be POWERFUL.
So I chatted with Mackenzie about making a video with her character (and costume) as the crux of the storyline, and she was excited about it. We worked together to craft the story arc and we both felt like it was an important, relevant story to tell right now (and could potentially even help some people!). I bought film gear to use with my iPhone (ala. the Tangerine Director's iPhone set-up) ;), and we started to shoot the video ourselves, with Mackenzie as the main character (turns out she's a wicked little actress too!). Enter my friend Genevieve Pierson, a brilliant photographer and videographer in Seattle who I've worked with a bunch (*she shot all the stunning album photos for my latest album, The Man Who Made Himself a Name). I told her about the project and she kindly offered to come help coach me a bit with filming one afternoon. She spent a few hours with us and then a week later sent me this message...
"I want to preface this email by telling you how much I've been thinking about this. I've been taking time and wondering about whether to approach you with my thoughts or not....I'm curious about what you're hoping for as a final end product with your video... is this purely the experience about the challenge of trying something new? Or, are you hoping to end up with something more professional? Are you taking it into your own beautiful and creative hands because it's more about a special experience with your niece? AWESOME if so...I suppose, ineloquently, what I'm trying to say is that I'm so inspired by Mackenzie, the song, and you in general, and I'd like to offer my co-directing/ shooting/ editing skills to you for this project... I would scrounge up styling, hair and make up, a couple more additional locations to round out the story, etc. but ultimately it would closely follow your treatment and shot list. No dollars involved....I'm approaching you with this because I think the voice you're creating with this is really important. And I see the ways I could help to make it as loud as possible."
Mackenzie and I were totally floored and immediately said "YES, PLEASE!!!" So we started over - shot everything from scratch - with Genevieve at the helm. She helped to shape & fill out the storyline in crucial ways, brought an amazing team on board who believed in the heart of the project (including the AMAZING Christopher Harrell, another wicked talented director here in Seattle who came on board to co-direct), and shot & edited everything to perfection. She and Christopher also directed Mackenzie (& the other actors) on set in the most gentle, effective and loving ways, it was amazing to watch! I can't get through 30 seconds of this video without crying. And I can't think of a single thing I've ever been a part of making that makes me more proud.
Without further ado, I give you the video for "Strong Swimmer"...
Some of you you know that the song itself has it's own back-story, but if you missed that you can listen to a lovely NPR Weekend Edition piece about it HERE.