KARMIN GOES ON A “SLEIGH RIDE” WITH COACH AND RACHEL ZOE

If you thought you saw Karmin’s festive side when they appeared at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last week, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Earlier this morning, the YouTube-sensations-turned-actual-popstars invited fans into their own winter wonderland with their energetic and glittery cover of the holiday classic, “Sleigh Ride.” And in the spirit of the season of giving, the platinum-selling musicians have teamed up with Coach to make their modern interpretation of the song available for free download on the fashion retailer’s website.

“Coach has actually been a fan of ours since we started posting cover videos on YouTube and of course we have always been a fan of Coach, so it was the perfect match!” Karmin stated about the collaboration.

For the song’s cheeky accompanying music video, Coach recruited superstar stylist and reality show personality Rachel Zoe to help band members Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan pick out their favorite holiday wardrobe items. And while the song and video rely on a less-than-subtle camp factor, the looks that the duo model in the video are as chic as they are diverse. So if you’re bummed that Nick is wearing clothes at all (thanks for nothing, Santa), you can at least rest assured that he’s still just as pretty to gawk at in a cashmere cardigan as he most likely is in nothing but a Christmas bow.

In addition to Karmin’s “Sleigh Ride” music video, Coach has also posted a behind-the-scenes video of Zoe’s creative process while styling the shoot. Showing off a vibrant array of outerwear, bags, shoes, accessories (I mean, did you SEE Amy’s furry winter hat and suede boots?!) and more, the posh looks Zoe created for the colorful video are also being sold in Karmin’s Coach holiday gift guide (talk about cross-promotion!). There may have once been a time that Zoe fantasized about carrying Chanel in her vagina for nine months, but this year, her contributions to Coach’s Holiday 2012 collection have birthed what can only be described as ferocious Noel realness.

Coming off a year that included their first Top 20 hit (“Brokenhearted”), Saturday Night Live performance and Rolling Stone magazine cover, Karmin had a lot to celebrate in 2012. In “Sleigh Ride,” the band’s excitement, energy, and signature affinity for surprising rap verses is alive with a yuletide glow that will surely flicker on your holiday playlist this season. Head on over to Coach to download the song, check out Karmin and Zoe’s videos, and kick off your celebrations in style.

Originally published on PopBytes

KELLY CLARKSON RELEASES FOLLOW-UP EP, “THE SMOAKSTACK SESSIONS, VOL. 2”

This year, Kelly Clarkson celebrated her tenth anniversary in the music industry.

To commemorate this milestone, the singer released Greatest Hits – Chapter One, a compilation of her most commercially successful songs, as well as a handful of new tracks (including the current single, “Catch My Breath”). Yet while this release does a good job of showing off Clarkson’s confectionery pop star persona, it misses part of what has made her such an interesting musician over the years: her multifaceted artistry and genre defying and boundary-less talent.

That’s exactly what’s on display in The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2, an EP released exclusively via Clarkson’s official webstore in tandem with Greatest Hits – Chapter One. The second installment of the singer’s wildly fan-favorite series of EPs recorded at The Smoakstack recording studios in Nashville (check out my review of volume 1 here), volume 2 is a diverse compilation of songs that Clarkson covered during her All I Ever Wanted tour in 2009.

Acoustic and stripped down, these EPs expose sides of Clarkson that are not often heard on her albums. Below, I break down The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2 track-by-track.

1. “I Never Loved A Man”

The last time Kelly Clarkson released an Aretha Franklin cover, she was a quirky 19-year-old girl competing on the first season of American Idol. On that show, she took on the Queen of Soul’s “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and would subsequently go on to be named the reality show’s first winner.

Yet on Idol, Clarkson’s performances were heavily tailored as a way to showcase her vocal pipes rather than who she was as an individual artist. She had to convince voters that hers was the most powerful voice by always displaying it at its largest, and could thus not only fill an amphitheater, but also shake the seats inside it.

It’s so rewarding, then, to hear Clarkson revisit Franklin’s repertoire a full decade later. This time around, the songstress is not gunning for a crown. And rather than trying to simply emulate Franklin, she is unafraid to tackle this classic material and inject it with her own unique signature style.

Recorded with Questlove, Clarkson’s version of Franklin’s 1967 hit, “I Never Loved A Man,” is a significantly grittier counterpart to its original. Over the years, Clarkson has trained herself to employ the huskiness in her voice as one of the most valuable tools on her belt. On this track, she marries her rasp and her belt to both wink at the song’s bluesy roots while giving it an edgier rock & roll quality. The result is a stunning tribute that feels relevant, contemporary, and refreshingly original.

2. “Your Cheatin’ Heart”

Sticking true to her Texan upbringing, Clarkson has long flirted with the idea of releasing country music. She’s already re-released country makeovers of two of her singles (“Mr. Know It All” and the Reba McEntire duet, “Because of You”), and sang a number of times at the Country Music Awards – including performances of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her collaboration with country star Jason Aldean, and “Don’t Rush,” a duet with Vince Gill that serves as one of the new tracks found on Greatest Hits – Chapter One.

“Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a cover of one of the crown jewels in country legend Hank Williams’ legacy. A midtempo bluesy-folk story about an unfaithful lover, the song is orchestrated by a hearty dosage of horns that enhance Clarkson’s honey-smooth vocals. The song is the type of classic country that influenced the nostalgic Americana sounds of contemporary bands such as Mumford & Sons and She & Him, while also being slightly fused with sultry Judy Garland-esque theatricality. Once again, Clarkson breathes new life into a genre standard in a way that favorably spotlights her musical versatility and adoration for her craft.

3. “Walking After Midnight”

While “I Never Loved A Man” showed off her soulful side, Kelly Clarkson’s smoky jazz bar singer alter ego has never been so alive as on her cover of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.”

Another personal favorite of Clarkson’s from the 1950s, “Walking After Midnight” is a gorgeous blend of blues guitar, bass, electric organ and a foot-tapping snare beat. Her raw vocals provide such a strong sense of intimacy that it makes it easy to close your eyes and picture her singing the song while standing in front of you (uber-fans! Pun alert!).

It is on this track that Clarkson is at the very top of her game. Her astounding control over her voice mixed with her sexy nightclub crooner attitude serve as a master-class in jazz performance. Rarely has Clarkson sounded simultaneously so emotional and confident, making “Walking After Midnight” an absolute must-have in any fan’s collection.

4. “That I Would Be Good/Use Somebody”

Mashing up two songs that were released a full decade apart may sound like a sonically risky task, but Clarkson has never been one to turn down a musical challenge. This is, after all, a woman who has covered everyone from Aerosmith to Mariah Carey to Eminem.

Capturing the vulnerability of Alanis Morissette’s “That I Would Be Good” (1998) and the somber anthemic quality of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” (2008), Clarkson’s soaring vocal range takes center stage to deliver a powerhouse performance. The singer’s rock star persona becomes dominant, as she toys with a Pink-like rasp over the clashing of electric guitars and driving percussion.

Clarkson has always had a badass rock chick locked deep inside of her – it’s just rare that her label lets out that part of their all-American girl pop star. But when she’s set loose, it’s always the most indulgent treat a Clarkson fan can get.

5. “Lies”

On the first four tracks of The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2, Clarkson sang four different genres of music: soul, country, jazz, and rock. It makes sense, then, that to close out the EP, she would tackle one more: indie rock. In a decision that would make every open mic night stage in Williamsburg scream “not again,” Clarkson’s last song on the release is a cover of The Black Keys’ “Lies.”

On another incredibly intimate recording, her vocals are as organic as her delivery is passionate. Combined with the way she maintains the Amy Winehouse-inspired funk sound that ties the whole EP together, “Lies” is another tour-de-force from the multi-talented Clarkson. It’s a song that’s perfect for both the coffeehouse and for quiet nights at home with a glass of red wine.

With any luck, this song – and entire release – is our first taste of a more mature Clarkson’s future musical direction. And while Greatest Hits – Chapter One serves up Clarkon’s biggest chart smashes, The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2 paints a portrait of an artist who is far more complex than your average pop star. The entire record serves as a testament to the singer’s musical expertise and vocal brilliance. Do yourself a favor and pick up your copy now.

Originally published on MuuMuse

INTERVIEW WITH DAVID BAZAN

It’s been eight years since rockers Pedro The Lion released their last full-length album.

A band that was known for both its gritty and melancholy sound and its secular undertones, Pedro The Lion was always far more an indie band than a Christian one. Yet with the release of 2002’s Control, front man David Bazan began having to answer to frustrated fans. The band’s Christian fan base felt betrayed that their music was questioning and/or challenging the idea of God, rather than praising him. And as Bazan continued to release music, his own battle with his faith become so tumultuous, that the singer/songwriter ultimately declared himself an agnostic.

Recording under his own name rather than the moniker of Pedro The Lion, Bazan has released two solo albums since Pedro’s last record hit shelves. This year, however, fans of Bazan’s original band had reason to celebrate: he announced that he would be remastering all five of Pedro The Lion’s albums on vinyl. And to commemorate these re-releases, he would embark on a national tour to play Pedro The Lion’s Control from start to finish.

Preparing for his show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Bazan chatted with me about revisiting Pedro The Lion, his struggles with religion and alcohol, his plans for the future, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: It’s been a decade since the release of Control. How have the ten years since its release impacted what the songs on that album mean to you and the way you perform them?

DAVID BAZAN: I think by the end of the first Control tour in 2002, I was afraid that I had turned Pedro The Lion into an emo band … and I most certainly did not want to be an emo band! Now, I don’t really care. The main thing is that I have perspective now on the record and I genuinely like it. Some of the expressions are a little bit juvenile. I was naïve, but not as much as in some other songs that I wrote. I’ve been finding myself genuinely enjoying digging way into it every night. It’s great. I was just kind of going on autopilot ten years ago.

Out of all of the albums in your expansive repertoire, why is Control the one you decided to play from start to finish on this tour?

As it turns out, it’s the only one I can play every song from and that I like playing every song from. There are at least three or four songs from all the rest of the records that I just refuse to play. Control was the only possible candidate if we were going to do something like this, and as it turns out, I think it was a pretty good way to promote the rereleases of all the Pedro records.

Speaking of that, what made you decide that now is the time to make those records available again?

It dawned on us two or three years ago that it’s something that we wanted to do. More and more people are consuming vinyl, which I really like as a way of consuming music. It’s just so different from hitting shuffle on your iPod and I think that it creates more engaged listeners and fans. People were coming up to us and saying, “Hey, we want to get all your vinyls and I saw Control for $150 on eBay. Are you guys ever going to rerelease it?” I thought, “yeah, why not?” It just really took this long to get it done because we had to coordinate with [record label] Jade Tree. We finally were able to get everything going and it just took two or three years to make it happen. That’s why now.

Your first couple records included a lot of pro-Christian imagery. However, as your career progressed, you became more and more detached from Christianity. In 2009, you released Curse Your Branches, an album that has been described as your break-up letter with God. How do you feel your detailed spiritual journey has impacted the evolution of your sound?

It’s funny. I would say that the early Pedro The Lion records had Christian imagery. But in a lot of cases, it was quite critical. I mean, Winners Never Quit was very critical of Christianity. It has helped in some mock narrative, but it really is my attempt at sort of an indictment. While Branches is a more overt statement about me not being Christian anymore, I feel like I’ve always been kind of working at the same thing – which is writing about myself and critiquing institutions that are not helpful.

Sonically, I don’t know if there was any link that I can decipher between the lyrical content and the spiritual shift and the sound of the music. My records have become more autobiographical over the years. Curse Your Branches is quite autobiographical. I don’t know if that’s a trend that will continue. Honestly, I have no idea, but that is something that you could point to.

Do you still receive a lot of backlash from Christians who may feel abandoned by your music? What is your response to them?

Yeah, sometimes, but it’s mostly on the Internet. What are you going to do about that? People are at their worst in comment sections on the Internet. I just don’t pay much attention to it now. I have been quite earnest in my pursuit of truth as I understand it, and I’ve taken the process quite seriously, and with a great deal of respect.

People who take issue with the conclusions that I’ve come to in an honest as a way I know how … that’s not a valid criticism. If I would have done it in a manner that was more offensive and they took issue with the manner that I did it in, that’s fair. But just taking issue with my collecting data and coming to certain conclusions does not make me feel inclined to take that kind of criticism seriously.

If people have expectations based on their interpretations of my music, that’s fine. But if they’re disappointed because it means something about their own journey that is unexpected and uncomfortable … I understand all those things. But criticisms about the conclusions that I’ve come to are really something I have no time or bandwidth to take seriously.

Absolutely. Another topic that you widely tackle in your songwriting is the struggle you had with alcoholism in the mid-2000s. How did you become sober and what effect did that experience have on your music?

Well, to be clear, I still drink but I just don’t have a drinking problem like the one that I had in the mid-2000s. That has been a very interesting and kind of long negotiation. A big component of my compulsion to drink so heavily and so dangerously was the deep conflict and cognitive dismay that I was feeling about issues with faith. Once I finally took stock of myself in regards to my faith and was honest about just how marbled my feelings were about it, a lot of that compulsion lifted. I still have the chemical component of the addiction and so that took a while to get on top of. It was very two steps forward, one step back for two or three years. I still enjoy drinking but I can take it or leave it most of the time.

Do you have any plans yet for a follow-up to your 2011 album, Strange Negotiations?

I’m working very hard to make that happen. It’s been a little slow going, but hopefully, in 2013 … maybe the fall of 2013.

Can you tell me anything about how your sound or songwriting might have evolved since the last album?

I wish I could. I wish I knew. There’s sketches of things, but they don’t feel right yet, so I’m not claiming them as my own quite yet, you know? It might just be like a weigh station for whatever I land on, or I might turn a corner with these tunes and realize, “Oh, with this kind of production and these instruments, this is what I want it to be like.”

As someone who has been in the business for nearly two decades, what career goals do you still have left that you would like to accomplish?

I would like to be better at my craft – writing and recording and playing shows. I’m pretty content, though, to tell you the truth. Money is really hard, but I feel like all of my goals are kind of internal. I want to understand music more than I do and be more fluent with the kind of lyrics that I want to write and the kind of music that I want to have come out of my body. That’s what my goals tend to amount to. Not so much that I want X amount of records sold or to draw this many people or whatever.

If you could only perform one song you’ve written everyday for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?

Even if I agreed to that, I wouldn’t follow through with it. Oh geez. What I play a lot is “Cold Beer and Cigarettes,” but I would get sick of any song really quickly.

What do you find has been the most rewarding part of re-embracing Pedro The Lion during this tour?

The process of remastering all the Pedro vinyls was really eye-opening and enjoyable. For example, I realized just how proud of It’s Hard To Find A Friend I am, and how much I really don’t care for Winners Never Quit. It was all about clarity. Just understanding my own taste and what I actually accomplished and didn’t accomplish with previous releases.

***
Click here to catch David Bazan on tour now.

Originally published on PopBytes

And many thanks to David Bazan for sharing this interview on Facebook and Twitter!

Q&A WITH ZZ WARD

Last month, Oregon-raised singer/songwriter ZZ Ward released her premiere album, Til The Casket Drops. Distributed via Hollywood Records, the record marries the sounds of a smoky jazz club, ‘60s girl groups, and contemporary hip-hop beats. And the result is one of the most refreshing and original debuts in recent memory.

I caught up with ZZ about the release of her first album, its inspirations and collaborations, her current tour, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How would you describe your unique sound to someone who has never listened to your music before?

ZZ WARD: Dirty blues and beats.

As someone who’s a relative newcomer to the big league music scene, is there an artist in particular whose career you would most like to emulate? In other words, who are your biggest idols and why?

Tom Petty, Bob Dylan or David Bowie because they wrote their own songs and had the ability to always evolve.

This past summer, you toured with Fitz & The Tantrums and with Allen Stone. Now that your album is out, what new things do fans have in store from your fall tour?

They know my songs now which makes it all the more fun. Now they can sing all the lyrics with me!

What’s the first thing you do to unwind in-between shows when you’re on the road?

I like to drink tea with honey and get in my PJ’s.

At your show at Joe’s Pub in New York in September (which I reviewed here), you mentioned that you wrote “Charlie Ain’t Home” as a response to Etta James’ “Waiting For Charlie.” What was it about that song that inspired you to want to write a follow-up to it?

Her song was so different and had such a story, it pulled me right in. The emotion in Etta’s voice is very inspiring!

After hearing your interpretations of their songs on your Eleven Roses mixtape, both Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs reached out to provide guest vocals on your album. Were you surprised when you heard they wanted to collaborate with you?

I was VERY excited both Gibbs and Kendrick wanted to collaborate. Both are so talented and I always dreamed of working with them!

In addition to those two names, Til The Casket Drops also features contributions from Ryan Tedder, Pete Rock, Theron “Neff-U” Feemster, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest), Ludwig Goransson, Blended Babies and Fitz (of L.A..’s Fitz and the Tantrums). As a new artist, what was both the best and scariest career advice these seasoned veterans gave you?

Probably when Fitz told me how nonstop, sleepless, hard and exhausting touring would be. And when Neff-U told me to always make music that I love!

When you were 16, you started going to underground hip-hop clubs in Oregon to write and sing hooks for the rappers who were performing there. What do you find to be the biggest creative difference between writing a rap hook for someone else and a full song of your own?

If you’re writing a hook for someone then you have to kind of go into their head and help say what they are trying to say. When writing my own song, I think about what I want to say.

I imagine that October 16 was a big day for you, seeing as it marked the official release of your first full album, “Til The Casket Drops.” How did you celebrate that night?

I went out to watch Ellie Goulding’s show at the Troubadour and had sushi with my brothers.

Britney or Christina? Why?

I mean I gotta go with Christina because she is an amazing singer!

Since we’re coming off of an election, I have to ask – if you were running for President, what would your campaign slogan be?

DIRTYSHINE!!! Obviously!

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “FAITHEIST” WITH AUTHOR CHRIS STEDMAN

In stores this week, Faitheist details author Chris Stedman’s tumultuous and ultimately inspiring journey with religion. In his late childhood, Stedman became a “born-again” Christian after longing for a sense of community. But as he grew older and began to accept the fact that he was gay, his church became his enemy. He vehemently distanced himself from its intolerant attitude and subsequently, its community.

Unlike his religious beliefs, Stedman’s passion for community service never died. In his line of work, he came across an increasing number of diverse groups of open-minded and religious people. Soon after, Stedman began to break down his walls, and they formed meaningful and lifelong relationships. As an atheist, he felt enriched by the religious people who had entered his life. Thus, his mission of spreading tolerance amongst the religious and nonreligious was born.

Today, Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. Amongst various other hobbies, he also is the founder of NonProphet Status (the first blog dedicated to interfaith engagement), and travels across the country and the globe giving talks on collaborative action between faith communities and the nonreligious – something he does while stimulating conversation from both sides.

I chatted with Stedman about his religious journey, being a gay Christian, the stigmas associated with both the religious and with atheists, the experience of writing a memoir at twenty-five, and more.

Alex Nagorski: First of all, what made you decide to write this book?

Chris Stedman: I entertained the idea of writing a book for a while, and decided to take the leap after friends encouraged me to start writing and see what happened. Once I began, the book just spilled out of me.

One of the primary reasons I wrote Faitheist is that I felt that the story that gets told about who atheists are—by the media and in general—frequently doesn’t reflect my views or values, or those of many other atheists I know. As an atheist and interfaith activist, I wanted to contribute another perspective to the conversation about atheism and religious diversity. I wrote it as a memoir because my life experiences have informed my conviction that atheists and the religious can, and should, seek to understand one another better.

AN: What do you feel are some of the key ways that everyday people can help extinguish the “us versus them” mentality that so widely exists between various faiths as well as the religious vs. non-religious communities?

CS: At the end of Faitheist, I encourage people to start reaching out, sharing their own stories, and trying to have constructive conversations about religious differences—specifically with members of communities other than their own. I think that this is just a first step, but it’s a very important one. Fear of the unfamiliar strongly contributes to how polarized our world is regarding religious differences. As an atheist, this concerns me. Survey upon survey finds that atheists are broadly, and often quite intensely, disliked and mistrusted. Interfaith dialogues present an opportunity to challenge these negative connotations by facilitating relationships between atheists and people of faith. By working with atheists, religious people have the opportunity to expand their horizons and learn from people who believe differently than they do, and the same is true for atheists.

AN: One of the many things that made this book such a unique read was how you detailed the self-loathing you felt when you were figuring out your sexuality during the time that you considered yourself to be a devout Christian. What advice do you give teens that approach you today who are struggling with these same conflicts?

CS: Talk to someone. Ask for help. Don’t feel like you have to work through it alone. I tried for a long time to figure out my sexuality on my own, but it took talking with other people about it to help me find some peace. There are so many resources and people out there that can help. I included information about The Trevor Project at the back of Faitheist—I’ve volunteered with them and they are a great resource for anyone who is struggling. My struggles with my sexuality are a huge part of why I promote interfaith dialogue now; it’s important for people to see that there are many ways of being in the world, and that it is okay to be who you are.

AN: You wrote that in the beginning of your atheism, you “mourned God.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by that feeling? How and when did you overcome it?

CS: When I stopped believing in God, I felt alone. The idea of God had held a certain appeal—it was nice to think there was something larger that had my back, something that was going to watch out for me. And I think my feeling of isolation was exacerbated by the fact that a lot of people around me seemed to believe in God. I didn’t notice anyone who was modeling what it could mean to be an atheist. Eventually, as I became more settled in my own sense of self and what I believe, I didn’t feel sadness or regret about my atheism—in fact, because it felt authentic, I found it liberating.

AN: There’s a turning point in the book in which you were going through a phase of detesting and writing off religion entirely and thus vandalized a church sign. You described feeling guilty and lost, saying that, “I knew the church wasn’t my home, but I no longer wanted to destroy it.” Can you walk me through how this moment served as the catalyst for your shifted attitude towards religion?

CS: That story, like many others in Faitheist, is just a glimpse into a larger set of experiences—in this case, the time in my life when I was working through very conflicted feelings about religion. So it’s representative of a broader shift in my attitude and my approach. It’s hard to boil those kinds of shifts down to a single moment, but as I was writing this book I tried to select the experiences that best reflected what I was going through at the time. The church sign story was especially difficult to remember and write about—not only because it is pretty embarrassing, but also because it occurred during a difficult period in my life that I’ve tried not to spend much time thinking about. But I shared it because it represents how I felt at the time—lost, angry, confused, ungrounded. And then, of course, I returned to the church later with a different mindset. That’s why I wrote about it in Faitheist—because I was able to present a “before” and “after” picture that reflected how my thinking around religious issues changed over time. That story was just one of many formative experiences in my evolving approach to religious differences, but as I reflected back on that time period, it was among the most stark.

AN: Another poignant scene in the book was when you and your friend were brutally hate crimed by a group of men who called you “fags” and chanted condemning quotes from the Bible at you. What effect did that night have on the way you viewed the dichotomy between the Christian and gay communities?

CS: That moment was another hard one to revisit. After I wrote about it, I called up my friend Joey, who was also attacked that night, and we discussed the impact it had had on us. We reflected on how that was a moment when we could have retreated, deciding it isn’t worth it to try to find understanding with other groups of people. But instead, that attack served as a catalyst for our desire to work for a more peaceful and tolerant world. We didn’t want anything like that to happen again—to us, or to anyone else. At one point in my life, that kind of reaction wouldn’t have been possible. Today, it serves to remind me not only of how far we have to go on issues of religion and sexuality, but also of the urgency of working for progress.

AN: How do you respond to members of the gay community who reflexively dismiss religion because they feel fundamentally unaccepted by so many faiths?

CS: My response is that I relate to that feeling. I have been shunned and dehumanized by religious communities, and I understand how that can turn someone off of the idea of dialogue altogether. But I want to work toward a world where LGBT folks aren’t condemned and marginalized, and relationship building is one way to work toward that goal. Studies have shown that people are much more likely to support same-sex marriage if they know someone who is gay—so reaching out and introducing ourselves to religious communities can go a long way toward achieving that. It can be very difficult, but if we don’t try to build bridges of understanding, we allow exclusionary views to go unchallenged.

AN: Similarly, how do you respond to members of religious communities who reflexively dismiss your efforts to bring interfaith to the mainstream psyche due to either your atheism or sexuality?

CS: Fortunately, I’ve found a surprising amount of support from people of all backgrounds. There are certainly people who do not make the effort to hear me out simply because I am a gay atheist, but that is precisely why coalition building is so important. Some people won’t listen to me because of who I am, but they will listen to members of their own communities. Religious allies are essential, because they will reach people I and others cannot. They can speak to their own communities about the importance of equality and tolerance in a way that I can’t.

AN: In the book, you talk at lengths about the stigma that atheists are less moral than those whose morals are rooted in religious beliefs. One way you do so is by citing the example of CNN correspondent Erick Erickson attacking President Obama for “accommodating atheists” after calling for a time of “prayer or reflection” when Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. Why do you think so many people feel that advocating for atheist inclusion minimizes the morals and/or values of the religious?

CS: There are a lot of negative conceptions of atheism and atheists floating around in the cultural milieu. I sometimes facilitate workshops on atheism and religious diversity at colleges and universities, and one of the first things I do is ask participants what words, ideas, images, or phrases come to mind when they hear the word “atheist.” I ask them to be honest and not to worry about hurting my feelings. The words and phrases they share are almost exclusively negative. When I ask why that is, participants cite the messaging that exists in the media—how atheists are presented and how they present themselves—and they cite negative interactions they’ve had with atheists. So I think that a lot of it has to do with unfair anti-atheist stigma, but there are also ways in which some atheists perpetuate these stereotypes. This is one reason why constructive dialogue between religious and nonreligious folks can be so valuable—it humanizes people with different perspectives and makes it harder for them to demonize one another. It makes atheism seem less unfamiliar and scary. It normalizes atheists, which makes it harder for other people to marginalize us in that way.

AN: As yesterday was Election Day, what do you think the American government can do to bridge the gap between the religious and non-religious in this country? Or does the separation of church and state take the responsibility of this off their hands? If so, whose lap does this fall in?

CS: The government definitely can, and I think should, play a role in promoting pluralism. President Obama’s administration is supporting a program called the the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which has done a lot to help young people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds learn from one another and work together to improve the world. But government assistance aside, the responsibility ultimately falls on the community level, and that’s where change happens.

AN: In the book’s acknowledgments, you thank “the many musicians who soundtracked my writing.” Which musicians in particular did you listen to most while writing this book?

CS: Oh man—where to begin? One thing that helped while writing the book was playing music I used to listen to at the time in my life that I was writing about, so I did end up listening to a fair amount of Christian rock when reflecting on my younger years. But for the most part I listened to The Sound of Arrows, Sufjan Stevens, John Grant, Joan as Police Woman, Okkervil River, Cursive, The Antlers, Aaliyah, The Notwist, Robyn, Nellie McKay, Miranda Lambert, LCD Soundsystem, Garbage, The Fugees, Local Natives, The Tallest Man on Earth, The Weeknd, The Clipse, Marina and the Diamonds, Kanye West, M.I.A., and The National. Also, I listened to Britney Spears quite a bit… “Blackout” is one of my all-time favorite albums. And my edits were primarily soundtracked by Lana Del Rey.

AN: How does it feel to only be twenty-five-years-old and already have a published memoir out?

CS: Honestly, it feels pretty daunting. I’m just taking things one day at a time right now, because there are definitely moments where I stop and ask myself: “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I don’t really relish attention or controversy; I think I used to, but these days I’m much more content when I’m doing behind the scenes stuff that supports others, as I do in my day-to-day work as a community organizer. It’s difficult for me to get up in front of a big group of people and speak my mind, and to discuss deeply personal experiences—especially as a young person. Oftentimes, young people’s perspectives aren’t taken seriously.

No matter how old you are, being vulnerable isn’t easy, nor is sharing painful memories—but I believe in the power of storytelling to incite dialogue, which is why I wrote this book. Now that it’s coming out, I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow and learn from it. At the end of the day, I’m glad that I’m taking risks and trying to make a difference in the world rather than sitting on the sidelines just because that’s where I’m most comfortable.

Everyone has a story; in writing Faitheist, I wanted to share mine and invite others to do the same. People might think that a memoir is about telling a story from start to finish, as if it is something you do when the story is over. But to me, Faitheist is just the beginning. I’m still a work in progress. I still have a lot to learn—I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but I do have stories and experiences and ideas. So, to me, Faitheist is just another page in the book of my life.

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Originally published on PopBytes