An Interview With Madeline Tasquin on the Role of the Musician in This Critical Moment

[by Claire Mullen]

Madeline Tasquin is a Canadian folk musician and composer who has lived in the Bay Area for ten years. On Sunday, December 18th, Tasquin will bring together musicians for a tribute to the recently departed songwriting legend Leonard Cohen. Funds from the event will go to the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock.

I spoke with Tasquin about what it means for her to be a musician in this chaotic moment, and the role music can play as a tool for organizing and healing.

CM: So to begin, as a musician, how are you thinking about the role of music at this moment?

MT: My approach right now is based around the feeling that, especially because of the Ghost Ship fire, music is going to be healing. I think it’s a vital aspect to our balance as human beings to have music.

I’m really thinking about: what can I do that has nothing to do with the advancement of my career? What can I do that’s going to sound good and that’s going to directly serve my community? The people who I care about and I love.

With the election the question is, what is our vision for humanity? Let’s take a break and zoom out to the big picture. What’s the fucking point of what we’re doing? Then zoom back in to what’s fun for each of us. What we’re working on that we’re passionate about. And for me it’s water.

Have you been active in water politics before?

No, I wanted to find what I could most rally behind, and for me it’s water. I grew up next to water, and now it’s been unexpectedly showing up in different songs.

But what can I do that doesn’t risk me getting deported? I don’t have the courage to go put my body on the front line.

Everybody has their different answers to how they fit in, which seems obvious to say, but after the election it just clicked. You just can’t waffle around wondering if the cool kids are going to like your next album. The fucks being given were lost.

“After the election it just clicked. You just can’t waffle around wondering if the cool kids are going to like your next album.”

So how are you thinking about these messages and connecting to your audience?

MT: Something I have actually been thinking a lot about is this thing called bouffon, because I’ve been taking some clown classes here in Montreal.

Bouffon is this kind of dying art. It’s done in a troupe, maybe 3 or 5 people, and it’s a lot more political than the standard clown as fool. It’s more the jester’s role, coming in and telling the king through comedy what other people can’t tell him.

Tasquin-clown.jpgSo I’ve been thinking a lot about how that relates to music. And I don’t know the answers yet. But it’s an art to be able to say to the King something like “your peasants are dying” and “they all hate you” without angering the king. You’ve got to figure out the art of communication. So what I’ve been thinking about is that when you’re relating to these groups of strangers, that can be a really powerful opportunity to ask people to be more compassionate, or to let go of something, or whatever the gradual process is of learning to to be a better human. Rather than just “Hey, look at me. I’ve got great songs.”

“It’s an art to be able to say to say ‘…Your peasants are dying’ and ‘They all hate you’ without angering the king.”

It’s breaking down the fourth wall which exists in commercial music. It’s a performance and you take it in. You receive it and we give. For me it’s about breaking that down and about connecting those people in the audience to each other.

I heard some talk after the election about how we’ll have a punk revival in music, not necessarily the punk sound but the ethos. Is that what you see happening?

I think it’s only natural that if music gets far enough away from its original purpose then it’s going to slingshot back. I definitely feel that now.

Like OK, now is the time. I can’t just wait to make a change in the future. I need to use whatever resources I have now to do it. And that’s what punk music is; we’re going to say what the reality is. F you if don’t like it.

And that’s part of why people like Leonard Cohen’s music so much. Leonard isn’t afraid to say stuff. He’ll just say it. He’s not worried about marketability or anything. And people really resonate with it. You have to let go of expectations.

“I think it’s only natural that if music gets far enough away from its original purpose then it’s going to slingshot back. I definitely feel that now.”

Definitely. I was listening to an interview that David Remnick did with Leonard Cohen a few months before he died, and Cohen talks pretty openly about his personal insecurities and uncertainties when it comes to his own message, whether his voice matters. Is that something you deal with as an artist?

Oh yes, I mean that was part of my inner critic for so long and it still is there.  Like what right do I have to ask people to follow my music? You know whatever voices you have. And it definitely has slowed me down.

It’s just that now the fucks are not going to be given. I just feel excited about what’s to come. In this time and place right now, being a musician feels like such an essential role and something that’s been underutilized. I can definitely relate to him though. We’re our own biggest critics for sure.

Madeline-Tasquin picture.jpg

How are you thinking about what you can do, both as a musician and as an individual, in this moment?

Well I can’t think of how it would be different. I’m all in all the time as an artist. The way I’m responding is just thinking that I need to love louder and harder.

But one thing I’m thinking about is women. Particularly women supporting each other rather than buying into the competitive models that we’re encouraged to take up as musicians and artists. The capacity for collaboration and recognizing existing networks and how they can be connected, strengthened, and reinforced. I just see so many women who can very readily jump into that.


“The way I’m responding is just thinking that I need to love louder and harder.”

You mean caring and community-focused?

Yes. It’s a really simple, somewhat cliché idea that we’re all connected. But we are. We’re all affecting each other in some way. And so to acknowledge that and move forward with a unified vision of our role as artists, to connect to people and to serve communities and to ask the difficult questions. It’s not easy to do, but it starts with an intention.

Claire Mullen is an audio engineer and radio producer based in San Francisco.


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