Interview with Erica Mulkey, the Woman behind Unwoman

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Erica Mulkey is Unwoman, an independent, self-published musician, who has released several albums of original songs and covers. Mulkey’s most recent CD is entitled Lemniscate: Uncovered Volume 2 and features her take on The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Q Lazarus’ “Goodbye Horses,” as well as thirteen other cover songs.

What makes Unwoman unique is her choice of accompanying instrument and the people that she plays for. Mulkey performs live at a variety of Steampunk and fandom conventions all around the US. Unwoman’s instrument of choice is the cello. She has tackled the difficult task of playing her songs live with the use of a looping cello, which allows her to generate an amazing musical accompaniment to her haunting voice.

This year at Dragon Con in Atlanta, Unwoman performed several times throughout the weekend. Mulkey also managed to find some time to talk to Target Audience Magazine about her history and future plans in music, and the approaches she uses with her self-publishing and touring.

Like many songwriters, Mulkey began playing music at a very young age. At the age of 9, she picked up the cello. She explained that it was her choice and not from any particular family pressure. “I was lucky enough to be at a school that had a school orchestra. My dad played the violin just kind of casually, and I picked up the violin first when it was time for school orchestra. But then, the violin sounds like a dying cat if you can’t play it well, so it is a really tough instrument to start on. But, I had friends that played the cello and it sounded so much better, so my parents let me switch. It was definitely my choice. My parents encouraged me to practice, sometimes when I didn’t feel like practicing, but it was a thing that I always wanted to do.”

Playing an instrument and learning music that has already been written is one challenge, but the desire to write her own music was also something that she discovered at an early age. Around the same time she began taking piano lessons so that it would be easier to write her own songs. “I played around with it when I was 9 or 10, but I wrote my first song when I was 13,” she said. “I wrote it on the piano. I actually was not songwriting on the cello until I was in my early 20’s.

After college, Unwoman began trying to establish herself as a solo musician, but was having trouble finding a core audience. Mulkey’s musical influences came from the Goth and Industrial music scenes, but since her chosen instrument was the cello, she found that her style didn’t really fit into that format. But, much to her delight, the culture known as Steampunk soon found her and embraced her.

Explaining the details of how this union came about, Erica said, “Steampunk chose me, but I was very happy to be chosen. I worked with bands like Rasputina and Voltaire, both of whom are kind of tangentially Steampunk affiliated, and Vernian Process who explicitly call themselves Steampunk. Playing with them and also opening as a solo artist, I played at Steamcon in 2009. Up until that point, I had no idea that Steampunk was such a vibrant, actual scene. The [Steamcon attendees] embraced me and the show went so well and it was so much fun that from that point on I started emailing Steampunk conventions and saying ‘here’s who I am,’ and playing all over the place.”

A quick glance at Unwoman’s tour schedule reveals a bit more about her union with the Steampunk culture. Mulkey primarily tours and performs at Steampunk and sci-fi/fantasy conventions throughout the year. “Last year I had this realization that I was putting a lot of effort into playing shows in dive bars in cities that were on my way to conventions, but I didn’t make enough money doing that. I would play for like 10 people, and I would go to the convention and play for like 300 people and everyone would buy my CD. So, I decided it made more sense for me to try and rest on those days than to try and play shows for10 people. Now I don’t try to put together driving tours anymore.”

As an independent, self-published artist, Erica has used Kickstarter to fund five albums, one re-release and one DVD documentary project. With her success using the crowd sourcing website, she does have some general insights into how to approach a Kickstarter campaign.When I did my first Kickstarter, the things that made it successful … First of all, I already had an email mailing list with about 2,000 people on it and about 1,500, 2,000 Twitter followers. So, I already had a social network that I could tap into.”

She added, “I only asked for two or three thousand dollars, and I had already produced three albums at that point, so I could say, ‘hey, I’ve already done this.’ What Kickstarter tells everyone is to have rewards at a lot of different levels. That’s very important, because most of my funding came in on like $300 pledges for that one. So those things were really key and once you’ve done your first Kickstarter, you can ask for a little bit more and a little bit more, because you have a sense of what you can reasonably ask for.”

General information about Kickstarter aside, she had some very specific advice for Kickstarter newbies as well. “Make a Kickstarter video and put it on YouTube, but don’t upload as a Kickstarter video. Leave that as just a picture, because the way that Facebook interacts with Kickstarter is when you put a Kickstarter link on your Facebook, it plays the video instead of going to Kickstarter. That leads to more clicks before people can actually see your project, so it’s bad.”

Continuing her analysis of working with Kickstarter, Mulkey believes that once you’ve become familiar with using Kickstarter and have had a successfully funded project, it does get easier to do. Mulkey did admit that she was a bit lucky with her first exposure to the crowd source funding program. “I did my first Kickstarter back in the days when they didn’t approve anyone. Absolutely everything was ‘you’ve gotta know someone.’ I got Kickstarter codes from my friends, Stripmall Architecture, because they had done a Kickstarter project. So, I got to do one without having to go through their approval process back at the end of 2009 when basically no one got approved. So I was lucky I got in. I think it’s a lot more accessible now in terms of strangers who haven’t done it before being approved. That can definitely be done at this point, but it is tricky. I actually have a new Kickstarter that is going up that I submitted and it was approved about 24 hours later. It’s just a really quick little project. I just need money to master this bonus EP for Lemniscate, my last cover album. But, Kickstarter was very quick in approving that.”

When you are a self-published artist, sometimes it becomes a challenge to ask for money for your work. Unwoman gives some recommended reading material. She refers artists to an essay written by Amanda Palmer called “Why I am not Afraid to take Your Money.

Explaining a bit about the importance of that essay, she said, “My biggest piece of advice would be to read that article and really internalize getting over the stigma of asking for money for your art. That was a huge, huge problem for me. Especially while I had enough money, telling myself ‘well, I have enough money. I don’t have to ask for money for music. I can just do it as a hobby.’ And, I look back on those times and I say ‘but I didn’t have to.’ I could have been doing music this whole time if I had been unafraid. Don’t be afraid to ask for money and don’t be afraid to promote yourself because you don’t gain points for being quiet. If you’re doing something [for] food, people want to hear what you’re doing. They want to hear your self-promotion.”

While she writes and performs her own, original music, Mulkey has also released a few cover CDs filled with a variety of interesting choices. One of those covers is a mash-up of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” and Ciara’s “Like a Boy.” It is a very approachable take on Kate Bush, which is not a task that is easily pulled off. “The funniest thing about ‘Running Up that Hill Like a Boy’ is that I feel like the fact that I am mashing up Ciara with Kate Bush skirts around the ‘Kate Bush is Holy’ factor. Because, I’m instantly saying ‘I’m so sorry. Forgive me. I’m doing something terrible to Kate Bush.’ So, it makes it okay because she’s amazing and I think she’s kind of untouchable. Honestly, I like any version of ‘Running up That Hill.’ It is just such a great song.”

Regarding another Unwoman Uncovered volume, she began gleefully talking about one of her theme ideas. “I have so many different theme ideas for Volume 3. It’s really tough. I loved Lemniscate so much and the just cello and voice looping covers, and I’ve learned a ton more looping covers that I’m doing live so I kind of want to record those. But, my other idea is that I really want to do the cheesiest 80s songs and do them with love and sincerity. Like Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time,’ Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ Richard Marx’s ‘Right Here Waiting’ … there’s so many beautiful cheesy songs. I loved them when they were on the radio, and I feel like I can bring the sincerity to an audience that’s used to irony. You hate to love them, but they get ya. So, that’s one of the themes, but I have to focus on my next original album first.”

Unwoman is not one to rest on her laurels. She is already hard at work on her next album of original material, due out in Spring 2014. While she doesn’t have a name for the CD yet, she is excited about what is to come. “I have eight songs totally written, and I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the production work I did on Lemniscate. So far all of them are cello and voice looping based songs.”