(Originally published on the We Fought the Big One blog)
Interview with Selena Benally conducted by e-mail on May 2, 2019
Like many DC area musicians, singer/songwriter Greg Svitil (Teething Veils/Silo Halo) is more than an artist — he’s an advocate and a champion for other local sound creators. So when I asked Greg to curate the May 3rd edition of We Fought the Big One, I knew he would select a special artist worthy of our attention. And with Selena Benally, Greg delivered in spades.
Selena isn’t just a sound creator — she’s a catalyst for creativity. Check out Greg’s “5 Questions” with Selena Benally below to learn more about her vital role in DC’s underground music scene. Take it away Greg…
Greg: I arrived late to the More AM Than FM party. It was the spring of 2018, and I stepped into Songbyrd for the first annual Womxn Fuck Shit Up festival. In a day that featured one outstanding performance after another, among those that struck the deepest, most visceral chord within me was that of More AM Than FM. The power trio (drummer Anjalee Sharma, bassist/vocalist Melanie Mast, and guitarist/vocalist Selena Benally) harnessed not just the intensity of The Jam, Girl in a Coma, or The Gits, but the brilliant songwriting craft and mechanical precision that makes a great band legendary.
Formed in 2012, More AM Than FM have released two rapturous bodies of music—Off the Ground (2015) and Oh, the Places I’ve Been (2017)—and have new songs in the works. Selena not only infuses her gutsy guitar playing and exhilarating singing into the music of More AM Than FM, but also into that of The OSYX, the incredibly heavy force of a band that also features members of Fuzzqueen, Pagan Reagan, RadaR, and Honey Kill.
Along with her OSYX bandmates, Selena helps to run This Could Go Boom!, the outstanding record label that serves as a home for the creative output of under-represented and gender-diverse people. A few years back, she also took part in Ragnar Kjartansson’s Woman in E piece at the Hirshhorn, for which participating performers stood one-at-a-time on a pedestal, strumming an E chord. Selena has taken time out of her busy schedule to respond to a few questions. Thank you, Selena.
Greg: More AM Than FM has been going for several years now, you’re also a member of the OSYX, play solo shows, and who knows what other projects you have going. How do you maintain your energy level with all your projects? As a songwriter, are there differences in how your music takes shape from one band to another? When a song sparks, at what point might it become clear where its home might be?
Selena: Ever since I started playing with The OSYX, and working with This Could Go Boom! I have been super busy. One thing I’ve had to make sure I keep in mind is to know when to chill out, and take some time for myself. I live in Southern Maryland so coming home after spending several days a week in and around the city feels like a retreat. I can take a walk in the woods, go down by the river and just clear my head.
For the most part most of my songs would be geared toward becoming More AM Than FM songs. A couple lighter tunes would just stay acoustic songs that I perform solo.
The OSYX has been a cool, collaborative band since the start. We have 4 different singers, and songwriters so there’s a wide array of songs that are being created. Any songs I have brought into the band separately were ones that aren’t as punk-sounding as MATF tunes, or ones I thought could use the specific vocal, and multi-instrumental talents of my OSYX bandmates.
I have been getting back into More AM Than FM mode lately. We are going to start playing shows again this summer, and will hopefully have some new songs to record, and release.
Greg: I wonder if you could walk us through the writing process of the songs on “Oh, the Places I Have Been…”, musically as well as lyrically? How does your subject matter come to be?
Selena: “Oh, the Places I Have Been…” has kind of always seemed like “Off the Ground” part 2, ha. I always like to look for a theme once the albums come together so I can at the very least find a good name for it. Mostly “Oh, the Places..” is a collection of songs written after our first release. We did re-record the song “45” because we had a couple new ideas for it, and realized we were also better at playing it since first recording it.
The subject matter is all based on specific personal experiences. With the exception of “Cassilly.” That is a story loosely based on a family member on my mom’s side, Cassilly Adams. He was an artist and was the one who painted “Custer’s Last Fight” funny enough. We have an old suitcase that was handed down full of photos, letters and stories. I thought his was a cool enough story to build a song around, and add a little MATF flare to.
Greg: Could you tell us about how This Could Go Boom came to be? Do the members of the collective each have particular roles, and/or does it vary from one project or event to another?
Selena: This Could Go Boom! is a non-profit record label created by the members of The OSYX. Everything has been happening pretty quickly. The OSYX had our first show last June, and really felt the support of our community. We wanted to keep that momentum going so we decided to start the label so we could share that energy, and expand it into something useful that the DC area could benefit from. We have goals of expanding our reach outside of the area as well.
We work and make decisions collectively, but given different projects one of us may take the lead on it. We all have different skills that come into play at some point or another, so it has been cool to see the roles each of us take on outside of knowing each other as musicians.
Greg: I understand that you also work as a graphic designer; you seem to live and breathe creativity. In what ways does your musical life inform or complement your life as a designer, or vice-versa?
Selena: My work as a graphic designer came second to my music. I mean I have always made art in some capacity, but the actual design skills I developed later definitely came in handy as far as being able to create graphics, and album art for the band. I definitely look closer at design other bands use and have a greater appreciation of the work that goes into building their whole vibe, and visual experience. I’m grateful to have been asked to create art for other local bands and artists as well.
Greg: How did you become involved with Ragnar Kjartansson’s Woman in E? What was the experience like for you?
Selena: I had seen postings in Facebook groups about the exhibit, and how they were seeking women musicians in the area. I read the description and at first it didn’t seem like something that was very “me”. Wearing a full-length gown and heels, very feminine makeup and all of that. But I didn’t want to pass up a potential opportunity. I auditioned and was accepted as one of the 14 women.
It really felt like a social experiment. Being on display, standing still on a rotating pedestal for 2 1/2 hours, and only playing one chord. Some people didn’t think we were real people. Some people would get really close, while others shied away. Some didn’t even enter the “room,” instead just peeked through the gold tinsel. It was interesting to witness viewers’ responses to the piece.
Check out the website for This Could Go Boom!
And be sure to catch Selena Benally at the May 3rd edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE!