Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Sabyn Mayfield

2016: A Year’s Worth of Memories

Heartbreaking Bravery recently went offline but all facets of the site are back to being fully operational. Apologies for any inconveniences. All posts that were slated to run during that brief hiatus will appear with this note.

Once again, I’d like to start off with thanking the 2016 crop of contributors for A Year’s Worth of Memories: James Greer, Lindsey-Paige McCloy, Amanda Dissinger, Loren DiBlasi, Katie Preston, Erica Sutherland, Nicola Leel, Jesse Amesmith, Phil McAndrew, Lindsay Hazen, John Rossiter, Sonia Weber, Lily Mastrodimos, Eric Slick, Jerard Fagerberg, Megan Manowitz, Amar Lal, Phyllis Ophelia, Elise Okusami, Isaac Eiger, Alisa Rodriguez, Ryan Wizniak, Nora Scott, Natalie Kirch, and Jessica Leach. There aren’t words powerful enough to adequately convey my gratitude for your efforts, time, care, and consideration. Apologies to anyone that may have contributed something that got lost in the shuffle (if this is you, please send me a note and we can try to work something out for next year).

As you may have noticed, every single entry into this year’s edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories (this one included) either ran or is running with the disclaimer up top. At the start of the year, Heartbreaking Bravery was effectively forced into a hiatus to work out technical complications that occurred due to what essentially amounted to a correspondence glitch. All sorts of things went haywire and reconnecting all the wires was a surprisingly difficult task. A number of things got lost in the shuffle.

For a brief time, I thought about ending the site permanently but reading back through the material that was still left on the table — as well as some of the material that was posted in the past — dissuaded me from calling it quits. These pieces needed to be published and it felt important, maybe even necessary, to continue this site.

While the timing may have rendered the 2016 installment of A Year’s Worth of Memories a little less timely than I would have liked, the pieces themselves largely transcended the time capsule-style trappings typically attributed to these types of works. Many touched on lessons that seemed timeless. All of them made me question what I’d eventually choose to write about it and how I’d present it whenever I did choose. The piece I wrote last year  was outrageously long and I didn’t want to go through something that exhausting again.

Eventually, I decided the best route would be to combine some of the common traits laid out by the 2016 series: splitting the piece into four pieces, focusing on personal triumphs while making room for gnawing anxieties, visual interludes, and paying tribute to the people and events that are worth celebrating. All that and more can be read below.

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SMALL FESTS & SHOWS

2016 was the year of small festivals; I’d always preferred them to the spectacle-laden retreats that seem to dominate the news cycles every year. Many of these small-scale events I’d been trying to see for years and 2016 just wound up being kind enough to allow me access to events like FRZN Fest, Wicker Park Fest, and Eaux Claires, among others. Unsurprisingly, each held its own share of memorable frustrations and scintillating highlights. In no particular moment, here are some of the standout moments.

Chicago was atypically warm for last year’s annual Music Frozen Dancing, which saw Muuy Biien, Meat Wave, The Spits, and the Black Lips playing outdoors to a packed crowd outside of the Empty Bottle. While all of the bands were good and the Black Lips, as they always do, managed to invoke the high school memories of discovering and participating in that genre of music, nothing could’ve topped Meat Wave unveiling “Glass Teeth” from what would eventually become their next record.

Ragged and sick, the band tore into the new material with the kind of excitement reserved for new material. It was a standout moment of a day that refused to end (my friend Josh and I wound up taking three different forms of public transit after the trains stopped running) after an off-the-books Heavy Times show wrapped in the early hours of the morning. It was a surreal moment and allowed for an extended view of Chicago at night. Exhausted, content, and desperate to get back to our sleeping quarters, it was a difficult night to forget.

Months later, I’d return for the unreasonably stacked Wicker Park Fest, excited to see a long list of friends and more than a few bands that had been on my bucket list. The weather had different plans. Not only did getting turned around on the way to the fest’s first day wind up forcing me to walk a few extra miles before being saved by a generous taxi driver who offered me a free ride after the first rain of the weekend started descending, more than half of the bands I’d intended to see got cancelled because of storms on both days.

Nearly as soon as I got through the gates, I was already rushing to take shelter with a bunch of other festivalgoers who had effectively sequestered themselves in Reckless Records, which would eventually lose power and offer up a faint glow with candles set up in various parts of the store People browsed records, reading materials, and gathered by the wind to watch the storm lift tents out of the ground and send them ricocheting down Paulina St. There was an odd magic to it all.

There were bright musical spots in the midst of all of that chaos, though, including an unbelievably explosive Jeff Rosenstock set that saw the songwriter leaping over the barricade gap, guitar still attached, to crowdsurf at the end of an abbreviated set. The whirlwind nature of Rosenstock’s performance, which came after the storm delays and restrictions were lifted, felt like an appropriate maelstrom of energy; a whirlwind performance driven by some unknowable force.

Five or six songs in length, it’d wind up being the highlight of the festival. Somewhere nearby, one of the trains on the blue line wound up getting blown off the rails by the intense winds and caused festival organizers to proceed with extra caution on the second day, which was hit with an even worse run of weather.

I spent much of that day with Sasha Geffen — the fist young music journalist I can remember truly admiring — who was with me when I was forming the initial idea for A Year’s Worth of Memories and was a vital part of its finalization. We took in great, sunny sets from Bad Bad Hats and Diet Cig before the storm reappeared and spent a lot of time in a powerless Emporium Arcade. During that run — which forced cancellations of both Pile and PUP — I was also fortunate enough to meet A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor David Anthony.

The last memorable moment of that festival caught me paralyzed in between two stages, with Ought ripping into “More Than Any Other Day” on one side and Alvvay‘s launching into “Archie, Marry Me” on the other. I took in both, unable to choose between two of the best songs of the past ten years before rushing over to Ought, who had their industrial sensibilities enhanced by their backdrop, trains running along the blue line in the background while being cloaked in a calm, post-storm glow. It was a perfect way to cap a very chaotic festival.

Three more small festivals had their fair share of spectacular moments as well: Bon Iver debuting an entire record at Eaux Claires, sending chills down my spine for the entirety of “715 – CR∑∑KS” while crickets audibly chirped on the forest perimeter, their sound elevated by the reverential silence of a crowd of thousands. Tickle Torture playing shortly after that set and delivering a slew of the festival’s best moments, including a finale that saw bandleader Elliot Kozel (formerly of Sleeping in the Aviary) getting completely naked while screaming “MY LOVE!” at the top of his lungs. That day starting at the gates, listening to the sounds of an expanded Tenement lineup blowing away a festival crowd and spending that day in the presence of some of my favorite people, including A Year’s Worth of Memories contributors Nina Corcoran (who I wrote about for my piece last year) and Sam Clark (who has played in more than one band with me).

Turkey Fest’s final day had a stellar lineup boasting four great acts: Wood Chickens, Trampoline Team, The Hussy, and Nobunny, with the latter two delivering incredible sets full of ridiculous high-energy antics. FRZN Fest had more than a few moments that wound up being burned into my memory. None more frustrating than an infuriatingly chatty crowd refusing to give Julien Baker anything beyond a modicum of courtesy. None more exciting than a characteristically perfect Charly Bliss set that had me continuously grinning while singing along to songs that comprised the best EP of this current decade and will litter one of 2017’s best records.

As much as I love both Julien Baker and Charly Bliss, though, there was something about Torres‘ set that felt almost holy. Playing after a good Eternal Summers set and the best Palehound set I’ve seen to date, Torres dove headfirst into a set that alternately gave me chills, lifted my spirits, calmed me, and — almost inexplicably — at one point had me on the verge of tears. To top it all off, Torres’ goosebump-inducing one-song encore wound up being tantamount to a religious experience that included a lovely moment between bandleader Mackenzie Scott and my friend Justin. I was fortunate enough to capture that moment in full and revisit it frequently.

For individual shows, there were a number of great outings that were peppered with heartening moments lingering around the peripheries of the main event. Walking into the High Noon Saloon to be greeted with an onslaught of hugs from my friends in Yowler, Eskimeaux, and Frankie Cosmos, only to be whisked away for a coffee reprieve in a nearby shop by Gabby, Greta, and A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor Athylia Paremski, before circling back to a powerhouse show. Charly Bliss and PUP combining for what was, bar none, the most intense show I’ve ever experienced (at one point I was nearly choked out by a girl clutching the neckline of my shirt to keep herself upright in the swirling sea of chaos behind me).

As meaningful as both of those shows were, though, it would have been impossible for anyone to top an event that occurred early on in December: the official reunion of Good Grief, a band that meant an extraordinary amount to me that was nearly gone forever, taking place in Guu’s, the tavern that’s acted as a refuge for me during my various stints in my home town. People from the shows that dominated my fondest Stevens Point memories from that run all flooded in from various parts of the upper Midwest to see this take place and everyone lost their voices screaming along. Making things even sweeter: an opening set from Heavy Looks, led in part by my friend Rosalind Greiert, watching her hit a stride as both a writer and performer, and feeling an irrepressible rush of a million good feelings as I watched her come into her own in real time.

To see something like that happening (both the Heavy Looks set and the Good Grief set), surrounded by friends so close they’re considered family, engaging in something meaningful is an exhilarating feeling and a lot of people who were present are likely still feeling some of those feelings reverberations. Good Grief weren’t exactly a household name before their dissolution but they were — and remain — one of the best bands I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Get caught up by watching the videos from that reunion set right here:

PLAYING MUSIC

In 2016, I had the good fortune of playing the most shows in any given year that I probably ever have in my life. In addition to finishing writing a (forthcoming) solo record, I was able to play in three different bands with people I respect, admire, and care for deeply.

The band I played with the least was the band that I’d played with the most in 2015, A Blue Harbor. Geographic complications have essentially forced us into a hiatus by the middle of the year but we were still able to play a few shows in support of the full-length we’d recorded in Minneapolis in 2015, including a local show for a pop-up art gallery for an arts collective that made me feel a surge of hope for our small town. As unlikely as it seems at this point, something tells me the things this band has to offer have been far from exhausted (and our guitarist/vocalist, Matty, has been releasing a continuous string of excellent material on her own).

I accepted an invitation to join a new band called Doorstopper and have taken up residency behind  the kit. Jarad Olson, the bassist for both Good Grief and Heavy Looks as well as an incredible songwriter in his own right, had teamed up with our friend Melissa Haack to allow her poetry a musical platform in an odd experiment that’s been paying the type of dividends that I’m legitimately not sure any of us had expected. It’s become a band whose mantra has remained — and with good reason — “let’s get weird.” It’s a band that has been given the tag “premenstrual post-punk” and it’s the type of band that takes a suggestion for a “doom-wop” song seriously. And it’s a band that hasn’t stopped getting better and more interesting with each successive practice.

While Doorstopper has been occupying itself in the shadows, building something interesting, I also found myself being re-integrated into a resurgent Holly & the Nice Lions, who played all over the state of Wisconsin in 2016, with a host of fascinating bands. Some of those bands (Bad Wig, Midnight Reruns) were made up of the people we’ve been close friends with for years. Some of those bands (Young Jesus, POPE, Mo Troper) constitute the best emerging bands America has to offer.

One of those bands (Bully) has earned international acclaim. One of those bands (The Muffs) continues to be rightfully revered as not only icons but living legends. Through all of those shows, the weird parties surrounding them, and everything else that the minutiae of being in band carries, we’ve grown closer as a unit and I’m proud to consider both of the other members as family. Whether we were being towed to a house show after blowing a tire or playing hard enough to generate our own blood, we’ve found ways to continuously elevate each other, keep each other in check, and look out for each other. Show after show, song after song, the band kept getting better and we — impossibly — kept enjoying each other’s company more. It’s hard to imagine a better situation.

MY PARTNER

For all of the memorable things I was able to do in both film and music throughout 2016, by the year’s end none of it felt as meaningful as it would have if I didn’t get to share it with my partner, Simone. Throughout the last quarter of the year, we went from being good friends to being inseparable, willfully colliding at nearly every turn. I learned to rediscover the depths of my love for discovering new music by viewing it through her eyes. I rediscovered the importance of engaging in active good. I made up my mind to constantly strive to better myself in productive ways.

A series of shared trips to the various corners of the state of Wisconsin led to some genuinely unforgettable moments, whether it was carving out new, unbeaten paths in gorgeous parks on beautiful days or getting swept up in the (typically far too humid) intensity of shows in basements, dive bars, or anywhere else we might find people playing instruments (or picking up instruments of our own to play each other Bishop Allen songs). I’ll steal her glasses, she’ll steal my camera. We’ll laugh, we’ll listen, we’ll watch, and we’ll keep moving forward.

The survival of Heartbreaking Bravery can, in many ways, be directly attributed to her involvement in my life. All of the frustrating, terrifying events that have happened over the course of the year’s last stretch seemed easier to weather with her at my side and she’s constantly given me at least one major reason to celebrate the future. I’m thankful, grateful, and unbelievably lucky.

A STEP FORWARD

By the end of 2016, Heartbreaking Bravery had gained additional purpose. In the face of one of the most anti-arts (and anti-press) administrations in America’s history, the need to fight back by any means necessary increased. Even before the election, the fact that the current president’s campaign had carried him so far was troublesome. With a milestone rapidly approaching for the site, that happening at the forefront of the nation’s political landscape (and, more directly, America’s landscape), and an unending desire to be productive and actively contribute to good causes, I chose to resolve all of my feelings into one massive project: A Step Forward.

At first, I only expected a handful of people to be interested in contributing to the project. More than half of the artists I reached out to responded immediately and gifted the compilation, designed to serve as Heartbreaking Bravery’s 1000th post, incredible material. In a matter of weeks, I had more than 50 songs kicking around in my inbox. A few months later, my finger was lingering above the publish button, set to release 100 songs from 100 artists that had, in some way or another, been involved with this site’s history. By that point, I’d enlisted the help of Jes Skolnik to locate worthy causes and had struck up a correspondence with the Chicag0-based Rape Victim Advocates. All of the money made from the pay-your-own pricetag of A Step Forward would be going towards that organization.

Looking through all of the songs, whether they were demos, early mixes, new songs, remixes, or old favorites, and all of the artists who had chosen to give me a part of their lives because they believed in the things I was doing and the causes I was supporting was an overwhelming feeling. A lot of people that have had near-death experiences have described the sensation of seeing their life flash before their eyes and, in that moment with my finger hovering over the button to release this compilation, it was hard not to take stock of everything that had happened in my life over the course of this site’s existence. It was a jarring feeling but one that filled me with hope and with love for the people who have supported this place, stuck by my side, and lent their voice to any of the various projects to have run on Heartbreaking Bravery.

I was on the verge of tears when I woke up to the flood of responses the compilation had elicited and how much it had generated for people who put the funds to good use. I’d stayed up for nearly 50 straight hours getting the preparations for the project in place. Cody Dyb, one of my closest friends, was kind enough to let me use his internet to upload the materials (the internet at my house is obscenely slow) and I’d collapsed into a deep sleep shortly after returning home. Phil McAndrew, one of my favorite artists working today (and a regular contributor to this series), contributed an original piece to the project that has become one of my most-treasured renderings.

In the weeks leading up to A Step Forward‘s released, I’d done an ink sketch of what would become Heartbreaking Bravery’s logo. Petite League’s Lorenzo Cook — another Syracuse-based artist whose band contributed an incredible song to the compilation — meticulously tightened and superimposed the logo onto the image for the album art and the banner that can be seen at the top of this segment. I’m unbelievably grateful for both of their contributions and am lucky to count them both as friends. I also have to give special mention, once more, to Fred Thomas.

For more than a few years, I’ve considered Thomas to be one of the best lyricists in music (2017’s Changer finds him attaining stratospheric highs). When I reached out to him about the project and he suggested a song tackling the weird inter-scene dynamics that occur around someone being outed as a sexual predator, I wasn’t just flattered, I was flattened. That the ensuing work would be one of his strangest — partially inspired by S U R V I V E’s outstanding Stranger Things score work and a nice (if unintentional) nod to that particular act’s name — felt appropriate. “What Happens When the Costumes Come Off” is a song that perfectly embodied the tumultuous events that led to the formation of A Step Forward in my mind and has resonated with me ever since my first, oddly disorienting listen. There’s fear present in that song, there’s an incessant questioning, there’s a feeling of damage, but — most importantly — there is a feeling of resilience.

It’s that final feeling, resilience, that I’ve chosen to carry into 2017. With what America’s currently facing, resilience will be necessary. I’ve already been inspired by my friends’ resilience and generosity and I’ve vowed to carry on that spirit as best as possible. I’ve vowed to both make more room for and to elevate the voices of the groups who have been unfairly othered due to location, socioeconomic standing, or — infuriatingly — appearance, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Historically, the people that have followed this site have shared a similar mindset and I’m constantly humbled by their company. We’re all in this fight together and it’s important to listen to the fears, concerns, and desires of the people that have been denied a platform for the worst reasons all too frequently.

The shows and festivals made 2016, in turns, fascinating, frustrating, and genuinely exciting. The people I was fortunate enough to be playing some of those shows provided 2016 a level of comfort. My partner not only served as a constant source of inspiration but continuously reminded me of the good in the world and all of the reasons that hope should never be abandoned. A Step Forward taught me that I’ll never be alone in my belief that empathy, camaraderie, and compassion will always find a way to thrive and that now, more than ever, it’s important to carry on the work, the ideology, and the spirit of Heartbreaking Bravery. I will do my best to personally embody whatever legacy it may have at every single turn and I will always be honored by the company it’s allowed me to share. 2017 may seem bleak from the outset but I have every reason to find heart in the fight to ensure it’s better than what we expect.

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Of course, this series wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t thank everyone who’s contributed through the years. As I said earlier, all of your contributions — and the fact that you care at all — mean more than I could ever convey with just words. So thank you, again, to both all of those names listed at the top of this post and all of the following names for their past contributions: Loren DiBlasiSabyn Mayfield, Tica Douglas, Fred ThomasIsabel ReidySami Martasian, Ben GriggBella Mazzetti, David Anthony, Jamie Coletta, Chris SutterCole Kinsler, Gabriela June Tully Claymore, Stephen TringaliToby Reif, Elaiza Santos, Amelia Pitcherella, Katie Bennett, Miranda Fisher, Christine Varriale, Sam Clark, Julia Leiby, Kelly Johnson, Jessi Frick, Nicholas Cummins, Athylia Paremski,  David GlickmanSasha Geffen, Jeanette Wall, Eva Grace Hendricks, Caroline Rayner, Joseph Barchi, Edgar GonzalezShari Heck, Michael Caridi, Dave Benton, Cynthia Ann Schemmer, Tess Duncan, Michelle Zauner, Jeff Bolt, Katie Capri, Quinn Moreland, Oliver Kalb, Ali Donohue, Ray McAndrew, Christopher Good, David Sackllah, Rick Maguire, Stephen Pierce, Johanna Warren, and Patrick Garcia.

As always, I love you all.

2015: A Year’s Worth of Memories (Sabyn Mayfield)

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Over the course of 2015, more film coverage started trickling into this site’s regular coverage and that expansion will continue going forward. At the outset of Heartbreaking Bravery’s creation, the plan was to emphasize film in some way. While most of that emphasis lay in the admittedly limited coverage of the technical aspects of music videos, a few short-form documentaries and art films made their way into circulation. Before beginning this series, there was a 15 of ’15 post that covered the best scenes of last year and following the conclusion of this series, the final 15 of ’15 — the films list — will go live. Even with films now officially a part of this site’s fold, the critical dissection of music videos will remain, as it’s still one of the most fascinating short-form presentations currently being produced.

By all of these tokens, it’s a genuine honor to bring in Sabyn Mayfield as a contributor after he nearly topped the music video list and as he continues post-production on his directorial debut, Boomtown. A few of Mayfield’s various other credits working as a writer, producer, composer, casting associate, key grip, and actor include cult classics like Wristcutters: A Love StorySpring BreakersThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Palo Alto. Below, he writes about site favorite Julien Baker, the “Sprained Ankle” shoot (which easily ranks as one of my favorite clips of all time), and touches on Boomtown. Dive in and go shoot something beautiful when you’re done.

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You would think these things would be easier for me to write being a writer/director, but in all honesty, I’ve become a writer out of necessity rather than pleasure. Writing is something I’ve done from a very early age and have found enjoyment in, but with the advancement of technology, I have to admit that my typing ability has not progressed at the same speed as my thought process. Long-form handwriting is my preference, but once I started transcribing it from pad to laptop, I said the hell with it. But I digress…

2015 was an enlightening year for me as a director, but the catalyst for it was a 3-taco combo I ate at the end of 2014. A few years back I worked on a film called Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine. Harm has become a good friend, but more so someone I look up to and can seek guidance from as I make my own path as a director. At the end of 2014 I was in Nashville working… or hanging… or something.

I reached out to Harmony asking him to take a look at the body of work I’d compiled at that point with the hope that he could give me some feedback or guidance in taking it to the next level. Long story short, we played a little text tag, and he hit me up saying his car was in the shop, but if I was free I could pick him up and we could grab lunch. Done and Done.

So we ate tacos. Harm was cool, as usual, and told me that he thought my work was really great, but that it was obvious I had amassed a series of pieces that reflected what agents/managers/productions companies told me I needed to help “sell” me. From what Harm knew about me personally, he felt my work lacked my true fingerprint. What he meant was that it wasn’t the type of work that reflected my individuality, edge, and identity as a filmmaker. And the real kicker was that he was right! Hard to argue with a guy when he vocalizes the thing that you knew all along, but couldn’t quite pinpoint. Boom!

This was the best and worst lunch I’d ever had. Best, because I felt free to truly express myself as an artist. Worst, because I knew that meant becoming more selective, which could negatively affect my “Dolla, Dolla Bill Ya’ll”. But at that point, it was the only option moving forward.

Now a little back-story on me as a filmmaker: From as early as I can remember, and even when I was in film school making my first shorts, I knew that I wanted to make films and tell stories that made people feel. Stories that affected people good, bad, or indifferent. Stories that ultimately became timeless because they were based on a universal truth or experience that everyone could relate to; real stories about real people.

So all that information takes us to January 11, 2015, and me sitting on my computer trolling Facebook for something to pass the time. What I found was a link to an EP self-released by Julien Baker on Bandcamp. I listen to a ton of music. I’m a fan, I make records, and I love shooting music videos. It’s always a blast no matter what, and one of the ways I get videos is my reaching out to independent artist that I like. Sometime it goes somewhere, sometimes it doesn’t.

But there was something really special about this record and the single in particular. It had this sparse instrumentation and these vocals/lyrics that penetrated deeply to my core, but more that than, on first listen I could visualize exactly how the video would play out in my head. So, having the obsessive compulsive tendencies I do, I trolled the Internet some more and found an email address for Julien and shot her a note.

Lucky for me, she replied right away (she addressed me as Mr. Mayfield which made we feel incredibly old at 33, but I guess to a 20-year old I probably was) and we began a dialogue that continued until May 12, 2015 when Julien arrived in LA and we drove our asses to Joshua Tree to shoot the video for “Sprained Ankle”. Now the end result is what I can only describe as lighting in a bottle. We had zero fucking dollars, but we had an amazing song, an amazing vision, incredible team, one location, one outfit, and one continuous take (I’d like to tell you how many takes we did and which one we actually used but that would ruin the mystique of the whole thing).

If my memory serves me right, we left for Joshua Tree around 6am, began shooting at 10am, wrapped by 1pm, got back to LA at 4pm, and delivered the 100% locked video by 6pm. Pretty rare for something this cinematically impactful to happen that smoothly. But, because of all the ingredients I mentioned above, we were able to make a breathtaking video that represents the song and Julien to the T. And, to expand on my point earlier, it is representative of me as an artist. It has been an evolution, and this video is the culmination of the work I’ve put in to developing my craft and who I am as a filmmaker.

What is so impressive to me about Julien is that at such a young age, she is confident in who she is and her voice. Not only as a singer, but also as an individual. It takes most people, including myself, many more years to trust in their inner voice and follow the path that is unique to them. In hindsight, not only was this piece pivotal for me as a filmmaker, but this experience was necessary for me as a man.

OK, so that seems to be a really good place to stop, but it actually gets better if you can believe that….

So just about the same time Julien and I were getting ready to shoot the “Sprained Ankle” video, my close friend and frequent collaborator David Newbert (who also shot “Sprained Ankle”) asked me what I knew about Williston, North Dakota, to which I replied “fuck all.” What I also didn’t know was the seed he planted that day would 8 months later turn into my first feature film, Boomtown. As I sit in my living room writing this, it is November 30, 2015, which is exactly 8 days since we wrapped principal photography on Boomtown.

What began as a casual lunch conversation turned into an 8-month whirlwind of researching, writing, casting, scouting, interviewing, funding, fighting, and driving, which culminated in our arrival in Williston, North Dakota. I don’t want give away too many details about the film at this point, because post-production has only just begun and we have a long way to go, but what I can tell you is that Boomtown is the byproduct of the “Sprained Ankle” video, specifically the way we willed it to be and the rawness in which we shot it. Boomtown is a unique and specific story that takes place in a very extreme and real environment. My main objective with the film, as was my goal with Julien, was to capture the true essence of the individuals, their emotions and environment, be it past present or future. To convey a feeling that you can only capture by being there and living it.

What I have come to find to be true through the course of this year is that you don’t need all the bells and whistles to deliver a dynamic product. You don’t need over-produced music. You don’t need big budget blockbusters. You need the simplicity of a true story and real people. People just like you and me. Those are the stories that are too often untold. But when they are, it is a sobering reminder of how much we all truly relate to one another.

15 of ’15: The Best Music Videos of 2015

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Before we begin on this list, it’s worth noting- once again- that this publication isn’t one that’s overly concerned with the artists that already have received major levels of exposure (it’s also worth noting that “best” is a formality and a pale reflection of lists born out of subjectivity that are constructed around a fairly rigid set of rules). That said, I’d be remiss to not mention that what I personally believe to be the three most important clips of the year (Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright“, Vince Staples’ “Señorita“, and Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)“) all used multifaceted black-and-white presentation to haunting, startlingly effective- and extremely pointed- levels. While those acts may have had access to expanded resources, the artists that made this list were able to find ways to flourish on technical and artistic levels. These clips are only scratching the surface of an extraordinary year for music videos but still managed to find ways to stand out from the crowd.

15. Fraser A. Gorman – Shiny Gun

Was there any narrative-driven clip as lighthearted as Fraser A. Gorman‘s “Shiny Gun” in 2015 (or 2014 for that matter)? Operating with a freewheeling sense of camaraderie and a genuine sense of fun, it’s a nearly iconic clip for an artist that deserves to be recognized on his own merits rather than just as an associate of label boss Courtney Barnett (who has a delightful cameo in the video). From the dryly comic premise to the impromptu guitar solo session that acts as its resolution, “Shiny Gun” is pure entertainment.

14. S – Remember Love

Last year, S appeared on this list for the heartbreaking “Losers” clip, which was teeming with genuine emotion and presented in bare-bones, DIY fashion. “Remember Love” sees S continuing to succeed on both of those accounts in instantly memorable ways. Ostensibly a parable about the metaphorical ghosts and skeletons that accompany the dissolution of relationships, “Remember Love” pulls off providing them with a physical form. By all accounts, the provided costume should feel too on-the-nose yet the video somehow finds a way to humanize its characterization to a point where the clip’s climax- and surprisingly profound final moment- feels genuinely devastating.

13. Diet Cig – Scene Sick

Over Easy, Diet Cig‘s immediately likable debut EP, established the duo as a fount of brash youthfulness and sheer joy, even in songs that dealt with some weightier issues. Even in a strong year for the band that saw the release of a few more clips and a tremendous 7″, nothing captured their aesthetic more than their video for “Scene Sick”. A simplistic concept maximized to an absurd level of success, it finds guitarist/vocalist Alex Luciano gleefully dancing next to a stone-faced Noah Bowman (the band’s drummer) before a brief rest that sees them both exploding into a frenzy of completely carefree moves over the most apt of refrains. No stakes are ever present and the duo dive into their roles with ecstatic abandon.

12. Dilly Dally – Desire

In December, no band was mentioned more times on this site than Dilly Dally, whose Sore has been in near-constant rotation here since its release. While the clips for “The Touch” and (especially) “Purple Rage” made strong impressions, it was “Desire” that managed to cut deepest. A visual realization of the record’s most central themes, “Desire” also managed to capture the band’s defining dichotomy: exploring the inherent beauty of what’s generally perceived as ugliness. The willingness to explore what makes us human so boldly resonated loudly when it was confined to the record but seeing a depiction of our mundane flaws married to a celebration of our sensuality and sense of wonder turned “Desire” into a staggering experience.

11. Eskimeaux – Broken Necks

Eskimeaux‘s O.K. was a watershed moment for Gabrielle Smith’s project, striking a perfect balance between somber reflection and a prevailing sense of closeted optimism. “Broken Necks” focuses most heavily on the optimistic side of that equation, bringing the song’s more twee elements to vibrant life as Smith and a cohort of friends walk and/or dance their way through a host of familiar locations scattered around New York. Smith turns in a charismatic central performance, flashing impressive depth as the video progresses through a variety of distinctive modes (deadpan, ethereal, meditative, etc.). Visually, it’s mesmerizing and finds ways to incorporate a few quick tricks into something that winds up feeling like one of Eskimeaux’s most defining moments.

10. Denai Moore – Blame

Every so often, a music video comes along that boasts enough firepower in its technical elements to prove unforgettable. In Denai Moore‘s clip for “Blame“, everything is firing on all cylinders. From Moore’s turn as a detached passenger to an inspired performance from an antagonized outsider to the gorgeous icy landscape and breathtaking cinematography, it’s a surprisingly moving piece of work. Tapping into a noir-ish narrative that focuses heavily on loss, unfettered emotion, and our capacity for empathy, it’s a striking vision. From its layered worldview to the video’s elevation of the song that acts as its driving force, “Blame” is an uncontested triumph.

9. Alex G – Brite Boy

Another clip that focuses heavily on loss, Alex G‘s “Brite Boy“, found a way to excel in its attention to implicit detail. Using only black outlines on a white background, “Brite Boy” infuses its classic-leaning animation with a palpable sense of longing. As its two protagonists adventure their way through bouts of surrealism and moments of clarity, a divide begins to emerge and deepen in heartbreaking fashion. It’s an emotionally crippling tour de force cut from a fairly unique cloth that’s already starting to feel more than a little timeless.

8. Bandit – The Drive Home

Easily one of the most stunning turn-in’s from a cinematographer working in this format in 2015, Bandit‘s “The Drive Home” benefits from the evocative framing that heightens the song’s cinematic inclinations considerably. Easily Of Life‘s most blinding highlight, the Derek Scearce-helmed clip elevates the emotional heft of “The Drive Home” via cold color palettes and sweeping, majestic presentation. Open roads, snow-capped mountains, and jaw-dropping visuals combine and culminate in a memorable final moment that completely removes the clip’s lone human element, ultimately revealing itself as an ego-less appreciation of our surroundings. It’s a powerful decision that cements the status of “The Drive Home” as one of the finest music videos of 2015.

7. PUP – Dark Days

In 2013, PUP‘s vicious- and viciously entertaining- clip for “Reservoir” earned a spot at the top of the music videos list I co-authored for PopMatters for that year. In 2014, the band followed suit with their unforgettable origin story video for “Guilt Trip“. Both were directed by the creative team of Chandler Levack and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, who once again crack this year’s list with the animated clip for “Dark Days“, extending a remarkable run of success with aplomb. Here, the gears are switched from relative bleakness and shocking moments of violence to a modest animated presentation of the decidedly unglamorous lives of touring musicians in a mid-level band. A sense of realism informs close to every step of “Dark Days”, from its unfettered highs to its most crushing lows. By providing what also effectively functions as a distillation of the band’s manic energy, Levack and Schaulin-Rioux have crafted yet another gem.

6. Courtney Barnett – Kim’s Caravan

One of 2015’s more unexpected commentaries came via Courtney Barnett‘s commendably bleak clip for “Kim’s Caravan“, which honed in on Australia’s most ravaged landscapes while simultaneously providing an unflinchingly intimate portrait of the inhabitants of those areas. Not too far removed from the works of John Hillcoat, “Kim’s Caravan” finds strength in its most somber tones. As the clip progresses, a foreboding sense of doom gets amplified to successively higher levels before culminating in some of the most startling and unforgettable shots of any music video to have been released in the past five years. As shattered glass rains down upon Barnett’s body and a trailer gets abandoned as it burns, the disappointment and anger fueling the clip crystallize. As Barnett walks offscreen in its final moments, it comes across as an impassioned plea and provides a fitting end piece to one of the more effective message videos in recent memory.

5. Girl Band – Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?

Did any other band find a foothold in definitive visual representation as Girl Band in the past 12 months? It’s doubtful. One of the more difficult decisions going into this list’s ultimate ranking was whether to include “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?” or “Paul”, as each operated on a singular playing field that’s paid massive dividends for the band. Ultimately, the former was selected for being both the introduction to the band’s distinctive approach and the meticulous, surgeon-like precision required for it to work. Playing like one of David Lynch’s wet nightmares, “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage” focuses on the removal of a corpse’s internal organs before taking a sudden left turn into one of the more nightmarish dance parties imaginable, shattering an enormous amount of tension and providing the rest of us with a glimpse of the arsenal of deranged imagery Girl Band had in store for their breakout year.

 

4. Hammock – In the Middle of this Nowhere + My Mind Was A Fog… My Heart Became A Bomb

While it’s likely this pairing functions more as a short film than a music video, it succeeds on its own merits to a strong enough degree that the cumulative result felt like an appropriate candidate for this list. Astounding on a technical level, both “My Mind Was A Fog… My Heart Became A Bomb” and “In the Middle of this Nowhere” also succeed in eliciting an emotional response from their high-concept proceedings. Centering on a narrative where a virus has all but wiped out the world’s population, a survivor returns to his now-desolate home that he’d built with his family to try and rebuild his life by any means necessary. Another intimate portrayal of a character whose fate is all but doomed, the setting of these clips allow them to grasp at weightier themes than usual, where things like abandonment are amplified considerably by the circumstance. As the protagonist’s resolve rapidly deteriorates with each subsequent attempt at rekindling his past, Hammock‘s lilting ambient score propels each of the clips towards being modern classics.


3. Bent Denim – Good Night’s Sleep 

It’s difficult to think of a clip that commanded more force with its synergy than Bent Denim‘s aching “Good Night’s Sleep“. A pained examination of the psyche after the loss of a child, its a wrenching, empathetic character study that captures the feeling of being directionless to heartrending effect. In presenting the narrative through the lens of home movies, it imbues the narrative with a discomforting notion that it’s a tragedy that many of us will have to face and find a way to reconcile. The video’s soft tones enhance the intuitively maternal characterization of the clip’s lone performer and adds untold depths of heartbreak to the shot that lingers on a sign that simply says “Momma tried”. Whether “Good Night’s Sleep” deals with death, miscarriage, custody, or abortion is up to the perception of the viewer but any way it’s spun, the video retains its gut-wrenching emotional impact and its level of care for its protagonist. It’s an astonishingly moving portrait rendered with the care it deserves and it’s also one of the finest DIY efforts of this decade.

2. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

An extraordinary amount of work and hyper-meticulous planning has to go into pulling off a successful tracking shot, which is why a few of the finest examples (Children of MenHard BoiledThe Shining, etc.) are considered some of the most iconic moments in cinema. In 2015, there were three of these that genuinely stood out: the entirety of the German heist thriller Victoria, the electric second boxing match in Creed, and Sabyn Mayfield’s clip for the extraordinary title track from Julien Baker‘s masterwork Sprained Ankle. It’s a record that’s predominant theme is our mortality, a fact laid bare by the opening lines of “Sprained Ankle”, and Baker conveys the weight of that obsession flawlessly throughout the course of the video. Appearing onscreen as a battered athlete surrounded by a decrepit gymnasium, the imagery drives home the somewhat tragic fact that everything is constantly aging from the moment it’s born into this world. Eventually, the camera pushes past Baker to explore the tattered walls and fading ceiling insulation before circling back to the ground and providing one last look at a now-abandoned gym, haunted by what’s no longer present.

1. The Fjords – All In

2015 was a deplorable year in terms of senselessly violent acts that were carried out on scales both grand and miniature. From school shootings to accidental bombings, there was barely a reprieve from the damage. It seems fitting, then, that the clip at the very top of this list would offer some sort of commentary on today’s excessive levels of heinously shocking violence. Here, though, the clip in question gains intrigue because of how balanced it manages to be in that commentary, touching on both the displacement that can drive those actions and the childlike mindset that goes into their execution. Nostalgia also plays a factor in “All In“, which is a monumental first effort at a narrative-driven music video for The Fjords (“Almost Real” was granted a compelling lyric video), connecting the thread of media influence to its sudden, unexpected bloodshed. Heightening the disconcerting events that inform “All In”, is the fact that the protagonist is a young child, whose played with a steely commitment that’s nearly as jarring as the clip’s climactic confrontation in front of a hot dog stand. All at once, “All In” manages to succeed as a pointed commentary, a revenge fantasy, and one of the most startling pieces of magic realism in recent memory. Timely and timeless, it’s a towering achievement by any measure and its message lingers long after its first shot rings out.

Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle (Music Video)

julien baker

Every few months or so, a music video comes along and manages to steal breath, freeze blood, and make time stand still. In those moments, careers on both sides of the lens can get pushed forward with a momentum that borderlines shocking and– importantly– keeps the medium pushing forward instead of succumbing to a rote stagnancy. Julien Baker’s “Sprained Ankle” is one of those videos.

Even on its own, the title track of Baker’s astounding Sprained Ankle is gripping. A haunted, downcast meditation on self-worth and perseverance, “Sprained Ankle” could have accompanied a strong photograph and it would have made a mark. Director Sabyn Mayfield and cinematographer David Newbert, thankfully, had a different vision in mind. While “Sprained Ankle” does start on a near-frozen one shot of a dejected Baker staring at the floor, it slowly unfurls into something that feels transcendent.

As the song’s guitar harmonics ring out, the camera pulls back to reveal an isolated Baker in the damaged expanse of a demolished classroom. As Baker makes her way through an emotionally crippling set of lyrics, the camera slowly surveys the surroundings without ever abandoning Baker is the focal point; she’s at the heart of the damage. As the lyrics draw to a close, the camera approaches Baker before finally pushing past her shoulder as the song descends into a wordless, layered chorus.

Finally, in that wordless section, the camera peers upward, focusing on the ceiling insulation in between the structural gaps. As the camera explores that aspect of the gradual destruction, there’s a palpable sense of sadness that accompanies the moment, driving home the thematic point of inevitable decay with an astonishing amount of grace. Presented as a tracking shot, “Sprained Ankle” concludes by sweeping from the roof back down to tarnished earth, pulling back to reveal Baker’s vanished entirely to inject the clip with a feeling of an almost sorrowful abandonment.

Ultimately, “Sprained Ankle” comes across as deeply human. It’s a tacit statement about the cyclical nature of loss and an unforgettable examination of self-awareness. It’s an unforgettable moment from an artist who deserves a lot more discussion going forward. Don’t let this one fade into the recesses of the forgotten anytime soon.

Watch “Sprained Ankle” below and pre-order the record from 6131 here. Below the embed, explore an extensive collection of some of the past few weeks’ best videos.

Farao – Warriors
R. Ring – Loud Underneath
Violent Mae – In the Sun
The Spirit of the Beehive – You Are Arrived (But You’ve Been Cheated)
Hey Lover – I’ve Got A Car
Skaters – Mental Case
Big Eyes – Local Celebrity
The Bandicoots – Overnight Innovator
Acid Fast – Momma Grey
Fog Lake – Shanty Town
Split Feet – Selective Mommery
A Place To Bury Strangers – Supermaster
Wand – Sleepy Dog
Mooner – Alison
Novella – Sentences
Billie Marten – Bird
Conner Youngblood – The Badlands
EL VY – Need A Friend
John Andrews and the Yawns – Peace of Mind
Moon King – Roswell
Rain – Slur
Joanna Newsom – Divers
The Zephyr Bones – Weird Summer
Eliot Sumner – I Followed You Home
Wells – Shepherd
Idle Bloom – Fare Fumo