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Description

  1. David Sedaris finally gets what he’s always wanted.
  2. Singer-songwriter Priscilla Renea is indefatigable, and she’s doing things her way.
  3. Jeffrey Gibson’s life and work are profoundly shaped by his Native American origins.

Segments

08:31
  • Literature
David Sedaris: This American Treasure
Author David Sedaris has been regaling us with tales drawn from his own life for nearly three decades.
Season 4, Episode 1
David Sedaris: This American Treasure
07:07
  • Art & Design
Jeffrey Gibson: Icon Maker
Jeffrey Gibson’s life and work are profoundly shaped by his Native American origins.
Season 4, Episode 1
Jeffrey Gibson: Icon Maker
10:44
  • Music
Priscilla Renea: Hits and Misses
Priscilla Renea went from YouTube sensation to mega-hit songwriter.
Season 4, Episode 1
Priscilla Renea: Hits and Misses

Transcript

Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. 

David Sedaris has been regaling us with tales drawn from his own life for nearly three decades, and he’s still on the hunt for fresh material.

David Sedaris: A lot of people I know are funny people, are decent people, are clever people, but they’re not good characters.

Priscilla Renea went from YouTube sensation to mega hit songwriter. Her secret sauce? Her ability to roll with the punches.

Priscilla Renea : I think that’s the essence of creativity, you know, being able to take nothing and make it into something, and that’s part of my gift. So, I never look at something as useless.

And Jeffrey Gibson’s life and work are profoundly shaped by his Native American origins.

Jeffrey Gibson: What happens in the studio is then all of this stuff arrives, and it’s all here, and I go back to that place as a child and you have to play. But the play, I’m playing like a 45 year old man who has experience and who, I know I’m smart, I know I know how to put things together, I know I know how to use color fearlessly. So, you just call on all of that, you know, and you play.

That’s all coming up on Articulate.

David Sedaris is about as ubiquitous as it is possible for a writer to be, and that’s exactly how he likes it.

AJC: Are you ever over this? This has been an extraordinary career now for going on 30 years, and you keep doing it. You don’t seem to get cynical.

David Sedaris: All my life I dreamt when I was young of people standing in line to say how much they loved me, and every night it’s like my dream come true, and I really don’t see the down side in that.

A national treasure, Sedaris is one of the finest American humorists alive today. The 61 year old has written a dozen books that have all together sold an estimated seven million copies worldwide. His essays, often read aloud in sold out performances, make creative fertilizer of Sedaris’ personal life. In traumatizing events, as well as the mundane, he finds humor. Anything can become a story.

Sedaris: I just think of things as material, you know? On the one hand, I had a problem with a tooth, and I went to a dentist in England who said there’s nothing wrong with your tooth. Really? And then I went to one in Australia who said there’s nothing wrong. Well, then why can’t I even rest my tongue on it if there’s nothing wrong? And then I went to one in San Francisco who said they can see the crack in this tooth from space. We need to do a root canal right now. But all the time I was suffering I thought, I thought, I can write about it. You know, I’m gonna write about it. I mean, it might take a while to get the story where I want it, but that’ll show it. That’s how I thought, like, I’ll show you, tooth.

But in the early 1990s David Sedaris was just another struggling writer working odd jobs to support himself, until one evening when he took the stage at a Chicago comedy club to read some humorous diary entries aloud, and a young radio producer named Ira Glass happened to be in the audience. Captivated, Glass booked Sedaris to perform in a pair of NPR shows. The exposure landed Sedaris a book deal and the rest snowballed from there.

Ira Glass:

When my sister Karen met him at a reading I remember she said to David, she said, you’re a lot nicer than I thought you would be based on your books. And I remember David said, oh, I’m not nice, just two faced.

AJC: You have written extraordinarily personal things about most everyone in your life, and I know that you do check in with people to make sure that they’re not gonna be hurt by what you write. Is there a line for you between the personal and the private?

Sedaris: Oh sure, oh sure, sure.

AJC: And is it really solid? You see it, and you know when you’ve, when you’re transgressing it and when you need to step back?

Sedaris: Yeah, I mean, well even like with my sister Tiffany who committed suicide there were things, phone conversations that we had and things that she’d told me. I told my sisters that even though she’s dead I didn’t put it in the essays because I thought, oh, she doesn’t want the reader– it would have cleared up so much, and it would have explained a lot. But I don’t know, she just didn’t want, well, I’m sure. There was no need to ask. I’m sure she didn’t want people knowing those things, so.

Sedaris:

(excerpt from “Now We Are Five”,” 2013)

The following morning I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta. And the day after that I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die, but a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968 when my brother was born. Six kids, people would say, how do you poor folks manage? There were a lot of big families in the neighborhood I grew up in. Every other house was a fiefdom, so I never gave it much thought until I became an adult, and my friends started having children. One or two seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that struck me as outrageous. A couple Hugh and I knew in Normandy would occasionally come to dinner with their wrecking crew of three. When they’d leave several hours later every last part of me would feel violated. Take those kids, double them, and subtract the cable TV, that’s what my parents had to deal with. Now though there weren’t six, only five, and you can’t really say there used to be six, I told my sister Lisa. It just makes people uncomfortable.

AJC: Is there anything that you would rather not have gone through in hindsight to become who you are today?

Sedaris: I feel like I wasted four years of my life in Raleigh, North Carolina. I dropped out of college and then I moved back home. I didn’t learn any new lessons, I didn’t. All I did was get older. And when I look back on it I think, well, I didn’t get AIDS, you know? So, maybe if I had moved to New York City or if I had moved to Chicago.

AJC: Wow, and that would have been the time as well.

Sedaris: I would have. So, I think of it like that. I think, well, it’s a trade off because especially in those early years when nobody quite understood how you got AIDS and where it came from, it was probably better for me to be tucked away in a small town where nobody wanted me than to be in San Francisco or to be in New York City where, you know.

AJC: There but for the grace of God.

Sedaris: Yeah.

AJC: Yeah.

Despite those early struggles finding love, Sedaris wasn’t destined to remain alone. He met his current partner, the painter Hugh Hamrick, nearly 30 years ago, and for all that time a version of their relationship has played out on the page.

AJC: You write him as somebody who’s wonderfully loving, extraordinarily patient, and sort of the sensible person in the relationship.

Sedaris: I mean, Hugh is– a lot of people I know are funny people, are decent people, are clever people, but they’re not good characters. And Hugh is a good character, because he’s the straight person for me to bounce against. So, he’s good to have in a story. He’s like the moral compass in the story. And he’s like that in real life too, but in real life it can be really tiresome to have somebody like that scolding you all the time.

If David Sedaris seems like a difficult person to scold, it’s because rejecting expectations is kind of his thing. And for more than 25 years Sedaris has helped readers to see humor in the daily tragedy of the human condition. Today his wry perspectives may be more valuable than ever.

(“Timber,” 2013)

It’s going down

I’m yelling timber

You better move

When Priscilla Renea sings she imagines her voice is an instrument.

Let’s make a night

You won’t remember  

Sometimes it’s a violin, other times a trumpet, or a guitar, and occasionally it’s actually a whistle.

AJC: So, it’s above soprano. It’s the highest range of the human voice. And it sounds like?

ACJ: Do that again, do that again.

AJC: Oh my Lord.

These days, she’s used to people’s shocked reactions to this extremely rare vocal gift, but growing up Renea’s innately musical family wasn’t exactly fawning over her talents.

Priscilla Renea: I thought everybody could do it. My mom was a singer, the first woman I would hear doing those whistle notes, and my dad could sing also. He had kind of like a… Always and forever — Like very smooth, like The Temptations, and my mom had this big voice, and my older brother, you know, he wanted to be a rapper. So there was music in my house all the time.

And if music was a constant presence in the household so too was Priscilla. Her mother was protective, and kept her at home as much as possible.

Renea: I used to think she was mean, but now I realize she was trying to prepare me for the world, because the world is savage. Nothing is sacred. Nobody’s off limits. Nobody’s safe, and I think she knew that and she was trying to save me from that.

But the savage world would eventually get to her anyway. Alone in her bedroom in rural Florida the young Priscilla had years to dedicate to improving her craft, and from the comfort of home YouTube brought her to the world. At age 18 Renea moved to Atlanta where she signed with Capitol Records, but 2009 after her debut album Jukebox fell short of sales targets, Capitol cast her aside, and she moved once again. In Los Angeles, she began focusing on writing for other artists, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, and Mary J. Blige among them. But the joy of these accomplishments was overshadowed by an all consuming three year legal battle with a former manager. Today having survived this and other classic showbiz nightmares, Priscilla Renea says she’s learned to stop trying to live up to other people’s expectations.

Renea: When I first moved out here everybody was like, if you get a single, people will really respect you. Got a single, nothing. If you get a number one, people will really respect you. I got a UK number one, that doesn’t count. If you get a top 10 in the US, I got a top 10 with the Chris Brown, “Don’t Wake Me Up,” didn’t matter. When you get a number one, got a number one Pitbull and Kesha, “Timber.” Oh well, maybe that was just by chance. Got a number one, country number one. Oh wow, she’s really good, but can she do it again? And I realized that is a never ending cycle.

AJC: But you know that now, but it doesn’t come with a side order of cynicism. You’re not cynical, are you?

Renea: I find the beauty in everything, you know, because I think that’s one of my gifts is being able to see a piece of trash and be like, yeah, but if you just threw a little of this on it it could be really cool, and I think that’s the essence of creativity, you know, being able to take nothing and make it into something, and that’s part of my gift. So, I don’t know if I’m doing it intentionally. I think it’s just a way to hold onto hope. It’s like I never look at something as useless.

AJC: Right, but when you were discarded by the record company like a piece of trash, like you hadn’t, the sales figures had not lived up to their expectations and they literally took down the posters around the lobby. How was that? I mean, that can’t have been, oh, this is just a growing moment. That must have been shattering.

Renea: I definitely went through a phase of darkness. I was very sad. I would drink a bottle of alcohol a day. Didn’t really matter what it was. Got into drugs. But I was just trying not to deal with life. And I realized, this isn’t me. This isn’t what I wanna do. I don’t wanna be like these people. I don’t wanna be doing this every day for the rest of my life, however long that may be. I have to do better than this, and—

AJC: I almost understand why you would turn to booze after that. Did you not at some point, I know you’re quite spiritual, did you not at some point turn to God and go, God, why not me? Why, what’s wrong with me?

Renea: Oh my gosh, all the time. I would sit in my closet and cry and scream into the pillow. Why is this happening to me? And I would be really, really, really sad. I would yell at God, and I would be like, well, you need to tell me what you’re doing, you know? But I realized that he was tempering me. He was allowing these things to happen to me so that I could be ready for what was coming.

(“Gentle Hands,” 2018)

Dear God, I want a man

I want him strong, ain’t scared to dance

Knows how to work, he’s down to Earth

When he gets home, he puts me first

I don’t mean to interfere if it ain’t in your plan

But I want a big strong man with gentle hands

And if we have a baby

Oh, she’ll be a daddy’s girl

It’s up to him if he does the kind of love she deserves

In this ugly, cruel, cruel cold world

Eight and a half years after her ill fated debut album, Priscilla Renea has returned to performing solo and her 2018 record Coloured fully erases her farm raised country roots.

AJC: Did any of the cultural baggage weigh on you when you decided that you were gonna make, write and sing country music?

Renea: I think a lot of people will shy away from trying to break into the country music scene who look like me because if I go to a country music concert, I’m gonna get mean mugged. They’re gonna look at me like, what are, are you lost? You know what I’m saying? I’ve been in that situation where I put my stuff on the counter and they say this is $40, are you sure you want that, as if I can’t afford it, or as if I can’t read. So I’ve been conditioned to recognize what those people look like and I realize it’s fear, you know? But I also realize that it’s the system because the system in America was built to keep one class of people lower so that other people at the top could benefit, and I realize, you know, it’s always been about money. Color is just a really easy way to divide people. It’s quick. You could just look at me and say oh no, she belongs over here, and I think because I know that it’s empowering. When I open my mouth and I sing you’re going to be affected whether you wanna admit it or not. You’re gonna be affected and that’s a super power. So, I’m not concerned about whether people like me or not.

(“Family Tree”,” 2018)

And they were hangin’ out on a limb

All those hopes and dreams just blowing in the wind

All my aunties and my uncles too

Said “she’ll be back and pregnant on her own in a month or two”

My mama kicked me out of the house

On the day I turned 17

My daddy called me up and told me

Boxes of my stuff was sittin’ on the street

Felt like I had the world on my shoulders

But really, it was at my feet

Till I became the roots and the fruits

And the branches on my family tree

Pain carved its name

And my heart froze like winter

And the splinter kindled embers

Lay forgotten till they blossomed

My family tree, I have watered

Till it’s outgrown my garden

All these years bleeding tears

I’m at peace underneath

My family tree

Jeffrey Gibson is part Choctaw part Cherokee, a former Army brat whose father’s job took the family from Colorado to west Germany to South Korea. Sometimes assimilating, perpetually questioning Gibson eagerly embraced the unknown.

Jeffrey Gibson: You know, traveling especially not for vacation but for living, you’re humbled so many times, you know? Your voice is constantly not available to you because you don’t understand where you are, and you have to navigate on someone else’s terms.

Many did not know what to make of this young man or who he was, Samoan, black, Hawaiian, Asian? American, he would say, Native American, a proudly held distinction.

Gibson: People have I think sometimes negatively asked me why do I wanna be known as a Native American artist? Does it have a pigeonholing impact? And I answer by saying, and this is truly what I believe, that’s where we’re at right now as a culture and those terms and those affiliations mean something right now. I don’t believe in post race. I don’t believe in post nationalism right now. They are our negotiating terms in terms of representation and voices.

Gibson’s lineage is explored and expressed in his richly varied work, multi media ensembles of Native American artifacts, pop culture, glass beads, punch bags, jingles, trading post blankets, and fringe.

Gibson: I’m a collector, you know. So, moving around I would say I collected everything from experiences, anecdotes, memories, cultural objects, you know, things that I would collect, and I think of my practice now as collecting being a major part of it. So, right now I’m collecting as many wooden carved representations of native people that I can. And what happens in the studio is then all of the stuff arrives and it’s all here, and I go back to that place as a child and you have to play. And I know that I’m playing with things that already have inherent meaning. They’re already important in the context of what I do. So then I’m just crafting visual poetry or I’m making a political statement, or it can be completely absurdist. But the play is, it’s like playing, I’m playing like a 45 year old man who has experience and who, I know I’m smart, I know I know how to put things together, I know I know how to use color fearlessly. So you just call on all of that, you know? And you play.

Once an outsider, Gibson is today widely exhibited and acclaimed, and extraordinarily happy in his long relationship with the Norwegian artist Rune Olsen. The two left Brooklyn a few years ago for a small town in upstate New York where a former school house now serves as their studio. The move coincided with the adoption of their daughter Gigi, a time Gibson remembers as being both joyous and tumultuous.

Gibson: You’re going through this process for something that you know is so important but there’s so many people involved and you’re being asked to jump through hoops, what feels like being asked to jump through hoops. So you’re occupied with that, you know, and then suddenly there’s this child. And even at the last minute this may or may not be your child. So, I think that that sense of negotiating with the unknown is, probably had the biggest positive impact on me and my work.

AJC: Interesting.

Gibson: You’re up against another unknown that has every ability to really give you everything and take everything away.

With a new home and a new daughter with his husband at his side and his extended family near Gibson is on the precipice of a new phase.

Gibson: I going forward want to tap into some of those places of my life that are not so specifically coded as Native American. Korea, England, Germany, Norway, queerness, also religion. Both of my grandfathers started their own churches, Indian churches, in Mississippi and Oklahoma. And now I look at it and I think, wow, they really founded a space to bring the community back together. Both churches still exist. So, there’s this sort of stuff that I think is, it continues the work, certainly the content of the work, but just in a slightly new direction.

Today, Jeffrey Gibson looks ahead towards more self discovery, more world discovery, and more opportunities to live a life of his own design.