June 4–23, 2024

Morgan Asks Kate and Robert to Talk About the Process of Writing HILMA

October 5, 2023

KATE: Okay, well, do you want, like, origin story?

MORGAN: That’d be great, yeah.

ROBERT: How do you remember us coming up with this thing?

K: It was 2020 to early 2021. We had been writing over Zoom for our band. I think that felt good and, I mean, I don’t know how you felt psychologically during that moment, but I felt like, whether I was in denial or not, that this isolation was sort of fine. Because I had a lot to work on.

R: Yes, 2020 we both had a lot we were working on and that felt good.

K: There was an instinct to keep that going. And we had both seen Hilma’s show at the Guggenheim and talked about it, and I had gotten the Guggenheim catalog. It was sitting on my shelf and of course I hadn’t opened it. Those beautiful art books, where you get them then you don’t open them, and you think, “oh well, I’ll read those essays someday.” And she was really staring down at me, so I pulled that catalog down and started reading it. Usually a book of essays about an artist is really boring to me, because I’m just thinking, “let me enjoy the art,” but Hilma always brings out really interesting things in people who are talking about her.

R: So we decided let’s write about Hilma, and we wrote “What Would It Look Like” first.

K: Yeah, that was the first song.

R: Sometimes you start a piece and you’re fumbling around for a long time trying to figure out, “Is this something that’s going to work?” But the combination of what you wrote lyrically and then what I wrote musically it seemed like, for lack of a better phrase, a big Broadway number.

K: I remember where I was when I wrote it. I was in the backyard of what was then our new house. And I had asked this woman I know who works with spirit guides, I said, “Can you check in and make sure Hilma wants this? Wants us to write about her?” And she said “Yes, but she’s gonna be there with you.” I said, “Okay,” and then I sat down and I wrote out longhand on paper, which I don’t usually do, the lyrics to “What Would It Look Like.” And it came very, very easily.

R: I don’t know if you even told me that before I wrote the music, but it was the same thing for me. It came very quickly. And then we figured out the structure of the whole thing pretty early on.

K: Because we didn’t want to do this total biopic thing.

R: No, that seemed a little boring.

K: You know, you’re writing about this person who’s doing really experimental, abstract work and then you’re going to talk about her in this really traditional format of this biopic?

R: That would be missing the point of why we were interested. It’s not just that she had an interesting life story.

K: I was thinking a lot about this idea of the Spiral Temple and the idea of ascension. And thinking, can we make a musical version of that?

R: And make it more choral, where there would be a leader but the leader would change.

K: And we knew there was going to be a third act.

R: Yeah, we didn’t know what it was for a while.

K: I started sending you these recordings of me ranting. Because as we were writing, the more I was reading, the angrier I was getting [Laughter] about Rudolph Steiner. And I was also sort of going through this, you know, personal and also maybe universal pandemic experience of having a lot of time to think about what really matters and about our relationship to our own ambition and what happens when there’s no place to put that ambition. What does it mean to make work that you can’t show anyone or you won’t show anyone? Or you show it to people and they’re not interested in it? You’re making your weird art in your little room by yourself and expecting people to love it and instead they’re like, “What the hell are you doing?”

R: I make a lot of stuff that nobody sees anyway, so I’m always kind of okay just making things that way.

K: But that’s what I appreciate about you. That makes the work not precious and allows it to exist without some sort of outside expectation about what it has to be.

R: That’s true.

K: You make it because you enjoy making it.

R: Yeah, that can actually be enough.

K: But I think that’s really rare. And it’s absolutely what I need in a collaborator. Also someone who doesn’t mind the levels of emotion I’m bringing to the table. That’s from my Scorpio moon. I was laughing so hard in our workshop today because you stepped in for someone and you had to sing about your “cancer moon.” And that line in act three is about us: “my cancer moon is more reserved/your Scorpio moon likes the drama large pronouncements.” I do think there’s something where, because I know that all of your watery astrological placements are under the surface, that my “drama of big pronouncements” is not a threat to you. For people who have a lot of water in their top three like me, emotion is often running the show in a way that it can get a little dangerous. I think you’re able to manage it. There are other things in charge. Sorry, we are totally going off the rails now.

M: No, it’s good!

K: And then you have a cancer moon and I have a cancer sun. And when you have the same moon as someone’s sun you can recognize their behavior as your secret self. You’re like, “Aha, I see that behavior and I understand it. Maybe I wouldn’t walk around in public like that…”

R: “…If I had that outfit in my closet I would not wear it.”

K: Right, like, “Only a few people have seen me in that outfit and I’m not going outside in it.”

R: “But I see why you’re wearing it.”

K: So there’s something there that, when I hand you lyrics, and I’m thinking, “Here’s this thing from the deepest depths of my most tortured soul,” and you’re like, “yeah okay, cool.” There’s no, “what is this???” That’s very reassuring. And act three was like that, was me ranting and feeling all these feelings about Hilma’s story and art making and gatekeepers and what gets considered important and what we have to do as artists to wrestle with all of these demons of doubt. There was something about it that felt very urgent. I don’t usually record myself and I was recording this ranting and then transcribing it. I was like, “I gotta get this down! What I’m saying is very important!” Then we went through together and

picked out the little things that we thought were interesting and created a kind of arc of ranting.

R: Yeah, and that’s act three.

K: And that’s act three.