Shaking The Dust Off My Interview Feathers With Pinkwing’s Joanna Levine

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Spring transitioning into summer is usually one of those times where people dread spiraling weather patterns, dodge rain like someone unknowingly moved them into the heart of downtown Seattle, and start to gradually plan out fireworks, yearly beach trips and a surprising amount of egg salad they plan to prepare.

However in the case of yours truly, while I do enjoy a few of those aforementioned items I tend to focus on the coming year of music. And while we’ve already had a few records more than worth mentioning, this point of time starts to be the transition where tours really start to heat up, releases drop like flies every few weeks, and musicians start making their respective moves (earlier than noon one would hope, though I can’t vouch for that since I’m usually asleep).

Regardless, it’s a fun time and it’s especially fun when you’re a music journalist that’s really started to make connections with the underground talent still paying it’s dues. As someone still gladly working hard to pay my own dues each and every single day, I identify with these wonderful folks much more closely than those artists who have major record deals or a top single on the iTunes charts.

No offense to them, but I understand the fight to succeed in your niche with much greater sharpness of clarity at this point in my life. And anytime I get to connect or talk to someone else fighting that same battle, I feel like it not only brings those of you reading this greater content, but also brings that community of us just a little bit closer together.

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So on that note, after a bit of an OTBEOTB hiatus I’m glad to return with an interview I conducted recently with the wonderful Joanna Levine, AKA the frontwoman of the Brooklyn bands Pinkwing and Joannas ‘n Bananas. Among other things we get to talk about those bands, her last Pinkwing EP Honey & Salt, a bit of musical background, and much much more. Enjoy!

1. So leading off, I like to start with the nuts and bolts and get straight into the basics. How did you end up getting into music as a career path, and what influenced you into making the jump from playing/learning in private to wanting to take that to stages to share with people? I know you describe the band’s influences as “times, places, people, stories, love, lust, confusion, heartbreak, and pancakes”, and since that piques my interest quite a bit more than the usual list of bands or artists musicians usually cite, I’m highly intrigued by that creative… vortex of thought there.

(JL): I got started, I think, by writing poetry in high school. I also quit piano lessons and was originally forced to pick up guitar by my mom, who wanted me to continue with any instrument. I was 12- I ended up quitting then too- but picked it up again around age 14 when I realized I wanted to accompany myself singing. Started out just learning open chords. I think I wrote my first song when I was 17. and my second when I was 20 or so. My guitar playing and songwriting career has been a series of starts and stops. But I did start playing open mics when I was at school for theatre studies at York University in Toronto. I remember being so nervous and my hands shaking so bad I could barely get through all the way through a song. I think I always wanted to perform, despite growing up as a somewhat introverted/shy kid.

My first actual band was with my friend Alana Livesey when we were living in Beijing, China. We played a few gigs and recorded a few covers and the first original songs I ever wrote.

Then I moved to NY in the late summer of 2006 for design school and started dating a trumpet player (Justin Davis) who introduced me to more musicians and encouraged me to start pursuing music more seriously. New York is pretty amazing like that. It gave me permission to pursue ambitions that I never allowed myself to indulge before- because of upbringing or preconceived notions of what’s realistic. I met a lot of people who were playing out and quickly realized how badly I wanted to as well. I kept asking people to join my band and they usually said yes. By the time I finished school I had no intention of following the path I had moved to NY pursue and started trying to figure out how to play and write as much music as possible.

The influences I sited are part joke part truth. The past 10ish years in NYC have felt like several lifetimes- multiple relationships, apartments, career-paths, friend circles. It’s so transient. It makes me feel like a survivor just to have stayed for so long. Most of the friends I made in my first 5 years have left. I don’t eat as many pancakes as I used to, I’m both happy and sad to report *laughs*. 

2. And as a bit of an add on to that question, was it playing an instrument that led you into writing songs? Or were you writing first and playing an instrument just came after that?

(JL): I played guitar and wrote poetry separately (to deal with teen angst!). It felt funny- kind of just an experiment when I wrote my first few songs. I didn’t realize it would become a lifetime fascination. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just fucking around. honestly I’m still just fucking around. I have pretty limited music theory knowledge, I’m told it’s not necessarily an impediment- I’ve been told that too much theory in your head can really create a block too. At first I was frustrated by my limitations, but then I started embracing the simplicity- I love country and blues and roots music. That stuff isn’t complicated. So now I just try to shut up my inner critic and try to get back in touch with the ‘just messing around’ mentality.

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3. What led to the formation of Pinkwing itself? I know in your bio you state that you’re mostly a duo in more intimate venues and a quartet for the “rowdier stages”. How did that all come together, and is there a story behind the name Pinkwing itself? I’m always curious about unusual or interesting band names and how they came to be chosen.

(JL): I released my first Pinkwing EP before I met Rob (Pawlings). With some friends in Toronto backing me up. My former band, the Collectors felt like it was falling apart and I, for some reason, I felt the need to move home to Toronto for a bit- it didn’t stick- I moved back after 5 months. But I recorded the Restless EP there. I tried to bring on other band mates when I moved back but i was just floating, nothing stuck. Until I met Rob. We starting playing together shortly after we starting dating, joined by a few of his friends- Paul Madison and Kenny Shaw, great guitarist and drummer, respectively. Rob has a really wonderful and talented circle of musician friends I feel very lucky to have met. We got married 2 years ago so now he is my bass player and co-creator for life *laughs*.

Our friends Vinnie Presite and Andrew Rosario started joining us regularly last year and it’s a warm fuzzy harmonious line-up. I love those guys- Vinnie is an old friend of Rob’s from Utica and Andrew is an old friend of Vinnie’s from playing on cruise ships and is also from Toronto. I’m pretty stoked have those guys as they’re just great dudes and great musicians.

The name Pinkwing comes from a symbol I’ve loved for a long time- a flying pig that John Steinbeck used to stamp on his essays and letters with the latin phrase ‘ad astra per alia porci’ which means ‘to the stars on the wings of a pig’. He described himself as ‘a lumbering soul trying to fly’, I guess I identify with it. I liked it so much I got it tattooed on my back (just the pig).

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4. Now being that you’re in a band, what is that collaborative environment like amongst your bandmates? Are you more of the solo artist and the band just sorta follows along with the vision you’ve got for your music, or is that an equal opportunity environment? And how would you say that influences the multiple genres you touch on within EP’s like your newest “Honey & Salt”?

(JL): Well… I’m definitely the songwriter- all the songs I play with the guys are songs I wrote before I met them. Most of them were recorded before we started playing with Vinnie and Andrew- so I guess they play go for the vibe that is on the recordings to a degree but they are all experts at their instruments- so they definitely add their own tone to the songs- then songs that haven’t been recorded they definitely arrange their own parts. We just started working on a new song that I hadn’t played with a band before- so it’s the first time that we’re working out the arrangement as a totally collaborative process. It’s been really fun- I’m excited to write a bunch more new songs in the next year to work out together.

5. Now speaking of your latest EP (which is on pretty constant rotation here at OTBEOTB), what’s the story behind your lead song “The Reverend Robert Pawlings”? Because judging by the song he sounds like a pretty resourceful guy, and I notice he also happens to play bass in Pinkwing. Now is Robert a real Reverend (in addition to his many other alleged skills), or is there some deeper story to that?

(JL): The Reverend Robert Pawlings, as you may have guessed by now, is tribute to my husband of the same name. Yes he is an ordained internet Reverend *laughs*. He’s married several of his friends. The song was my wedding gift to him, which I recorded on the sly with our friend Jon Jetter at his Right Angle Studios in NYC, and enlisted the help of all Rob’s friends to sing/play for him at our wedding. Rob is a really special person. He has more energy and a bigger heart than anyone I have ever met. He keeps me grounded.

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6. I know we’re a little behind the ball in talking about your latest music (“Honey & Salt” dropped back in August of 2015). But if anything, I think it provides an interesting window into how the music matures over time. I find that to be one of the hardest parts of reviewing new music on a release day unless I’ve had a few weeks to study it, because it’s just too fresh to settle into where it should ultimately be right at that moment. How do you feel looking back at this latest EP compared to when you started making music? How do you feel it’s evolved, how do you feel you’ve evolved, and how do you feel like this music is “settling” so to speak looking back at it now?

(JL): The Honey & Salt EP is kind of a patchwork. it was recorded/mixed in 3 different studios. I think I learn something every time I release something. I love each of the songs on this album and I loved collaborating with the people who helped us put it together. I think my sensibilities have started to settle in… the musical direction I want to continue to pursue is there… I love blues rock. I want the next album we release to be a full length album- and I want it to be fucking gritty. I wrote SO many sad, folky songs for so long. I’m pretty sick of them. I want to write and record a roots and blues rock album next. It’ll still have a little bit of folk and country feel, But I’m really trying to move away from that and into more up-tempo blues rock.

7. You’re the first musician I’ve ever had the privilege to metaphorically sit down and interview who happens to have an additional children’s music side project band called Joannas ’n Bananas. After listening to and loving your cover of Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” (complete with bubbles and kazoo solo), how do you end up having a children’s music side project band in the first place? Especially balanced against a pretty serious minded Americana-blues band in Pinkwing? I think it’s a really interesting contrast and I’d love to hear the backstory.

(JL): After abandoning the fashion industry and getting fired from several serving jobs, I started working as a nanny. Shortly thereafter I began teaching an early childhood music program called ‘music together’ . Eventually I began offering my own kids’ sing-alongs, occasionally joined by Rob and hence Joannas ‘n Bananas was born (Bananas is one of Rob’s many nicknames- Bobby Bananas). Teaching kids classes is still my bread and butter. I do it more and more- actually in the process of developing a new program I’ll be offering in Westchester starting this spring called Monkey Music ‘n Play. It takes up a lot of my time! It’s kind of a struggle to balance the two… I have a hard time deciding what I should be working on- the kids stuff is a lot more profitable- It’s hard to make a living playing the Pinkwing tunes- and I like teaching. It’s just a constant balancing act. I love Joannas ‘n Bananas but I wish I had more time to give to Pinkwing development too.

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8. Also I have to ask, who’s a better audience, the adults or playing for the kids?

(JL): Kids, if you can get and hold their attention, are a magical audience. They will straight up stand half a foot from your face and stare at you for an entire song. There is no filter and no sense of social convention. I love little kids.

9. Getting back into Pinkwing again, how does the creative process for new songs work for you exactly? Going back to question two for a moment, is it a matter of music coming before words, or do words develop that need to be set into music in your mind? I’m always very curious about that because I find that the question is very different for everyone I’ve asked, especially for people in a band.

(JL): I think I usually play around with chord progressions and then add lyrics. These days- I usually set out to write something specific. I like sitting down with a thematic goal in mind. To be totally honest I have written more kids songs than adult songs in the last year. Which is really fun and kind of freeing- I’m not really worried about a kids’ song being too simple. The simpler the better. But I really really want to get back to writing more Pinkwing tunes. The older I get the more conscious I need to get about how I spend my time. I think the only way I will sit down and carve out that time to write is if I spend money on a rehearsal space or make a song-writing date with a friend. It’s really something that’s at the forefront of my mind lately. Because I refuse to accept the notion that my most prolific period might be behind me. Fuck that. I just need to figure out a better system to get around to writing.

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10. And lastly, I know it’s only been about six months since your last EP, but are you already looking at future plans and songs for the next record? And what gigs and live stuff can people look forward to seeing you play at next if they like the record and want to see the music up close and in person?

(JL): We just moved into a house in Westchester with a great basement with a built-in vintage bar that We are slowly turning into a studio- I would love to release at least a single by the fall. and hopefully another album within the next year. Like i said, I need to write a bunch more new tunes. It’s happening. I’m excited to get set-up in the basement and record a whole album in one location.

We are playing quite a bit over the spring and summer- next up: brooklyn may 27, pete’s candy store, brooklyn june 3, rockwood music hall, NYC june 10, the back door, old forge, ny july 16th, the grape room, phillidelphia, pa

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Humongous, BIGGEST of BIG thanks to Joanna Levine of Pinkwing and Joannas ‘n Bananas for sitting down to interview with me! I love the content of doing this stuff as well as getting to know the artist, and I hope that you do too!

For more on Joanna, you can look up (and like!) either of her bands on Facebook, and by all means go and purchase the lovely Honey & Salt Pinkwing EP over on their Bandcamp page! If you do, not only are you doing the awesome thing of supporting independent artistry, but you might also get something as cool as this for buying the physical CD!

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