Coffee and Conversations: Stelth Ulvang and Nick Jaina (Ep. 2)

After their performances at the Liberal Arts Festival, I asked Jaina and Ulvang several questions about how they were impacted by their participation in the day’s events.

Ta'Leah Van Sistine

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Stelth Ulvang questions and responses:

  1. What drew you to this opportunity to perform at Bay Port? Have you performed at other schools before?

I was connected to the school and Mrs. Quinn via a friend who has seen me perform before. I am traveling with one of my favorite songwriters, or writers in general (Nick Jaina), and we will jump at an opportunity like this.  We have played at schools in the past and done workshops, but never has it been so welcomed by a school doing a Literary Festival at the same time. Needless to say, we are very excited to come.

  1. What, or who, got you here—to where you are—today?

If I were to give an Oscars speech, I would thank my grandparents and my mother for driving me to band practice so many times… but then there are a few teachers that had a grand effect on me among a large pool of ones that discouraged me, so I would have to say them as well.  It takes a lot of work, sometimes I think too much, to create worth in school for someone who didn’t want to be there (me), and I am so thankful those few teachers took the time.

  1.  While in New Zealand and writing your album And as Always; The Infinite Cosmos, you were   said to be inspired by the moon and the ocean. What other atmospheres have sparked lyrical moments within you?

I love the magical, yet true stories of history. It’s incredible how many recent events play out like greek myths. Where that last record was spent stargazing, I think my new one that I have been writing [I got inspirations from] on the road, and have got a lot from books, and traveling with The Lumineers.  Playing in this band has been a cool opportunity to see the world and visit so many places I never thought I’d have a chance to go. I have a song about the sistine chapel, I have songs about sailing, I have more and more songs about politics—all of these things feed into personal experience and emotional introspection and come out on the other side a full record.

  1. In an interview with Sound Check Chat you talked about the importance of “breaking that fourth wall between the musician and the audience.” What do the performers and the crowds gain from such an engaging experience? How are both sides impacted?

I got into theater in high school, and loved the moments of broken 4th walls in theater. When overused it can be tacky, but I would love it every time, meta, or maybe humorous … Now as I perform, it’s one of my favorite things to create a three dimensional performance space. I love standing on things, changing height, or crouching. I love walking into the crowd, I love talking to people.  Although vulnerable, I think it makes for a more intimate performance even in large spaces with The Lumineers, or in living rooms with friends. A crowd can trust you if you come to them at eye level and say, “We got this, we can do this together.”

  1. During a ballet presented by Satellite Collective in 2015, you performed a spoken word poem. What is the beauty in combining several outlets of art, such as dance and poetry, to create a project like that?

Ah! I’m so glad you found out about this!  It was a difficult collaboration for me, trying to re-learn a bit of stage performance like this. I helped write music for film for the Satellite Collective, and it was tremendously easier. I got connected through Nick Jaina, who I will be at Bay Port with, and he has written a lot of music for dance and film as well!  I think I have started to use instruments as a crutch for storytelling, but standing on a stage (At Brooklyn’s Historic “BAM”, nonetheless)  and tell an intimate story without the help of an instrument in my hands, was very difficult for me. As I perform, I like to integrate comedy and storytelling all while playing sporadically at a piano, or picking lightly at a guitar. In the end, I am so happy I did it, and I would like to do more in the future as I learned so many ways to make the process more efficient. Also, memorization of monologue differs greatly from improv storytelling, and I found I have a harder time sticking to a rigid script.

  1. Out of all of the questions that you have, or have not, been asked, what is a question that you like, or would like, to be asked? How would you respond to that question?

Haha, that is a tough and new question. I thought you did a good job pulling aspects from all sides of my favorite parts about music, and I got to talk about all of them. Who could ask for anything more? Do you ever watch interviews of “Nardwhar, the Human Serviette?” I hope someday I can do an interview with him, but you should look up his interview style, he is very weird.  I would love to be ready when he asks me a question like “So, how did you feel when in 10th grade, your music teacher told you to avoid the piano, and stick to the saxophone” and after the initial shock of “how did you find this out?!?!” I will tell him,  “though I was undisciplined, and scattered, and excited about all these different things, I felt so discouraged, and almost quit music, and am thankful everyday that I didn’t.” Ha. But really, Nardwhar manages to find out really obscure facts about even the most famous musicians … look him up.


Nick Jaina questions and responses:

  1. Why did you agree to attend the Liberal Arts Festival at Bay Port High School with Stelth Ulvang?

I’ve been a touring musician for over a decade, and in the last year, I’ve been doing a lot of teaching of writing workshops, both to adults and high school students. I’m always looking for an opportunity to play to different types of audiences, and Bay Port sounds like an enthusiastic supporter of words and music, so I’m in!

  1. What do you do to channel words and lyrics?

I think of writing as something similar to magic, in that it often doesn’t result from pressure or thinking, but rather from following a whim, letting your fingers type on a keyboard, or allowing your brain to go into that liminal stage akin to falling asleep. A lot of ideas are strange and inexplicable, and I think they are all around us, and if we stop questioning them, or demand that they explain themselves, we can find that inspiration is a river that we can dip into whenever we are ready.

  1. What inspired you to write your novel Get It While You Can?

I wanted to write my book because I went through some difficult moments of feeling like a failure for not being a famous musician or having a tangibly successful career, and I know that many people out there feel like they have failed to live up to their dreams. I wanted to write compassionately about the pain I’ve gone through in feeling lost, screwing up, wandering down what I thought was the wrong path, and how all of those failures are what end up making someone into a worthwhile person.

  1. When you write music for films, how do you get your inspiration and ideas for how the music should sound?
  • Do you picture the scene, or the music of the film first?

Writing music for film requires getting very specific about a certain emotion that is meant to be conveyed by the scene. Often the emotion is there in the words and the actions, and it just needs to be highlighted and amplified by the music soundtrack. This type of work requires an emotional specificity that is different from songwriting. The scene comes first, and the music is one of the last pieces that go in to make it all fit together.

  1. Having composed soundtracks for films, how do you feel about the incorporation of soundtracks in modern films, such as La La Land?

La La Land is definitely a special kind of film in that it is a musical, and the songs are the focus of the film. Usually the music in a film soundtrack should feel so seamless that you don’t even notice that it’s there, but you feel the emotions it gives. Musicals are more about using songs as an emotional release point for a scene, when the characters are so in love, or frustrated, or sad, that they burst into song. I think the coordination required to make those scenes come together is stunning. There is nothing more beautiful than people singing and dancing together.

  1. What drew you to the art of writing, both for music and literature?

I think writing often comes from a frustrated attempt at communication in some other part of your life. In my case, I was always very shy and quiet, and yet I still had an intense well of emotions that the rest of the world didn’t seem to experience. That disparity gave me a great urge to express myself in writing, to prove to the world that I was real.

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