Monday, May 11, 2015

SW9: Allison Curval of the Clockwork Dolls, Living a Life of Full Immersion

This week's blog features Allison Curval of Baltimore, Md., composer, instrumentalist, and founding member of The Clockwork Dolls. You'll be able to catch Allison and The Clockwork Dolls this weekend at the Steampunk World's Fair, and click here and here to get premieres of new songs.

How would you define/describe yourself?
How would I describe myself? Well, imagine this: You got this kid, right? Well, this kid really wants to learn to fix the TV, but instead of watching an expert or taking classes, this kid decides it’s a great idea to steal a screw driver from the garage and fix the TV all by themselves.
Aforementioned kid, of course, totally forgot to unplug the TV and, one trip to the emergency room later, comes right back to square one to start all over again.

After a bunch of tries, and just as many trips to the ER, the kid finally gets the TV to turn on. Sure, the picture doesn’t look quite right and the hospital bill was enough to fund several hundred TV’s, but the kid did it.

That’s me; I’m that kid. I’m not the brightest, I’m not the best, I’m not patient, and I sure as hell lack the common sense to do things right, but I finished the job.

I’m just a kid with a keyboard, no common sense, and a hefty hospital bill. Yeah that sums me up alright!
I also write the music for the band… I guess I should have mentioned that earlier!

How did you find steampunk?
As a kid, my dad was obsessed with two things: history and talking about history. I remember late nights sitting by the dinner table long after it’s been cleared with my father giving me long elaborate lectures on the imperial age of Korea through WWII and the Korean War. I remembered being fascinated with those stories; hearing about people, what they’ve done to survive, what they wore, what my grandfather ate, what he smoked, and what he drank.

And boy did my family love to drink. Our reunions were incredible.

From those table side chats with my dad kindled a love for history, for the past, I remembered staring at these old black and white photographs of Seoul in the early 20’s and making up stories about them. They were wrong of course but who cares? My imagination went wild.

Fast forward to my teen years: I loved sci fi, I lived and died by the old Star Wars vs. Star Trek debates that went on in school, and watched the original Star Wars Trilogy as many times as I possibly could. Hell, I even dressed up  as a Jawa for halloween; I was short enough! I was a nerd and, dammit, I was proud of it.

Then my 20’s hit. The perfect storm of a love for history and a love for science fiction came together when I saw  the Time Machine in the theaters.  I remembered reading HG Wells as a kid and getting a kick out of some of the image,s but I never really saw it play out quite like what I saw on the big screen. It blew my mind. Now, keep in mind, this is 2002; Steampunk conventions weren’t a thing, and I didn’t discover the Brass Goggles forum until 5 years later, so I took what I could get from the aesthetics I saw and delved into Victoriana and Edwardian era music, style, fashion, politics, and history.

Fast forward a few years later:

A co-worker handed me a DVD and said, “You gotta watch this.” The movie was Steamboy. I had no idea what happened to me, but by the time the DVD was done I was googling “Steampunk” and BOOM. I found Steampunk.

Describe one of your creative processes.
ONE!? JUST ONE!? You’re killing me. KILLING ME. Alright, let’s go with our last album, “When Banners Fall.” It’s not really a Steampunk album, but the creative process pretty much similar across all of my works. So, here we go ...

I’m not content just writing music – I have to write a soundtrack; I have to write a score; I have to have visuals and a story to go with my work. I have to be John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Jerry Goldsmith all rolled into a 5’3" song writing machine. But I can’t just sit down and write, that’s too easy right?

So, I have to live the music. I have to feel the emotions of the song and bring it to life. I have to feel the story on a personal, visceral level, otherwise, how am I going to make others feel what I have felt?  A lot of this involves putting myself in situations where I can empathize with the emotions and feelings of a particular song or story; I have to get inside their heads.

So, how does this relate to writing an album about WWII like "When Banners Fall"? Simple. I had to live WWII. I had to get inside WWII.

So, I listened to nothing but radio broadcasts from the era, watched nothing but movies from the era, and (tried) to experiment with sleeping outside in the dirt. My neighbors did not appreciate me digging a fox hole, but if they didn’t want me peeking into their house they should have bought blinds!

I even had a brief (and terrible) experience where I tried to live a few weeks off nothing but stuff that would be found in ration kits: corned beef, sugar pills, coffee, cigarettes, crackers, etc.

I will tell you right now: I would not recommend ANY of what you’ve read above. These are terrible ideas and I’m a terrible person. But through my experience abusing myself, I felt confident enough to write my music and score an era of time in which I did not live. Did I succeed? I’m not sure to be honest, but it makes a wonderful story!

Who or what inspires you?
What inspires me? Stories.  I can’t write a song without a story. I tried; it’s awful. For "Dramatis Personae," I had a narrative in my head for each song written that played out like a movie in my mind. As I was writing "When Banners Fall," I was reading letters from soldiers sent home and listening to speeches because I wanted to capture the stories of the time. I was obsessed with stories.

As far as people who inspire me? Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the man kept this country together through the worst times and he did it with polio. Plus, I love his speeches and fireside chats. Whenever I think of calm tenacity and leadership, I think of FDR, and that gets me through a lot.

I’m also inspired by Charlie Chaplin; I still get tears when watching Limelight.

What projects are you working on right now?
The next Clockwork Dolls album! It is tentatively called "The Sleepwalk Chronicles." Soundwise, I’m trying to mix fantasy film scores from my childhood (Neverending Story, Dark Crystal, Legend, and Labryinth) with contemporary electronica and our signature classical sound.

Like our previous works the album will feature a story which we’re currently in the process of setting up.  The story will take place in 1918 and will feature a heavy mix of fantasy with just a hint of tragedy

What advice do you have for young steampunks?
Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of judgment. Fear never having tried. And spiders. Since you’re also Steampunk, you should fear Steampunk spiders. Very nasty and so many cogs glued on them.

Take it from the crazy lady who built a band using an electronic orchestra when her friends told her that it would never sound right or it would never catch on.

Yeah, they might be right; sure, I could still fail; but the music speaks for itself.

Oh, another bit of advice? If you’re going to dig foxholes in your backyard, contact your local utility company first.