Welcome back to Future Prairie Radio, where marginalized artists explore the future through the lens of the arts, humanities, and culture. This is a transcript of Season 5, Episode 1, “To Listen with Elly Swope.”
Elly Swope is a queer and autistic songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer, guitar tech, and dog mom, living in Portland, Oregon. She seeks to empower and embolden diverse folks through her work. You can check out Elly’s music on Instagram @Ellyswopemakesmusic.
My name is Elly Swope, I’m 35. I grew up in southwest Missouri and moved here to Portland in about 2010. My pronouns are she, her, and I’m a musician and a recording engineer here in Portland. I’m an autistic queer woman.
I started on drums when I was about 11. I mean, I took private lessons for about seven, eight years when I was a kid. And that was largely focused on jazz drumming, a little bit of focus on being able to be versatile and be able to play in a bunch of different genres and in a bunch of different bands. And I played in school as well, so I did marching band and I did orchestra, and all these things, but I learned to play guitar in high school and started writing songs in my early 20s or so.
For the last 20 odd years, actually, songwriting and producing has been my main bread and butter, and just in the last five years or so, I got back into being a session musician and playing in other bands. And that’s what I’m mostly doing right now. I play drums for a band called MAITA. And that’s kind of, you know, coming out of the pandemic, has been the main bread and butter and what I’m actually spending most of my time doing.
MAITA is a songwriter named Maria Maita Keppeler, she runs the band, and she has a few different personalities. She’s very much a folk musician, that’s kind of how she got started. But she really loves 90s grunge, she loves early 2000s and emo, she’s got kind of a rock edge to her as well, so there’s kind of a mixing of those two.
In MAITA, I really love playing with her in particular because she has all these different sides to herself. So there are songs that are a lot more based in sort of my jazz training, and then there are songs where I’m just playing straight up rock drums.
I love writing songs and performing with my band, but I’m not doing it as much anymore post pandemic, because there’s so much that goes into it, it makes me very anxious, whereas like, drumming has always just put me in that happy place. It’s just something about drumming in particular, is always joyful for me. I’m not ever stressed out about it.
Coming out of the pandemic, playing the drums again for the first time in the band in about two years, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, like I couldn’t…Especially being an autistic person, like a high amount of adrenaline, a high amount of stimulus, all these things, it was making me freak out a little bit. And I’ve mostly gotten used to it again and gotten it under control, except that I keep dropping my sticks in the middle of sets.
And if it’s a low-pressure situation, it is just funny and fine and I’m used to it, you know, so I can just grab another stick and keep going. But we just played South by Southwest for the first time. And I was playing someone else’s drum kit, backline drum kit and the first song, which you know, your first song is always like a high energy song, I played a big fill going in in the chorus and dropped my stick going into the chorus, in the first song, in my first South by South West set ever. So that, I did not handle smoothly.
When something goes wrong like that in a set, I think the immediate thought is to try to make up for it and kind of overplay for the rest of the set or prove how good I am, but I did have to kind of collect myself and go, “It’s fine. You can’t overplay because then you’re going to ruin the rest of the set, you’ve got to relax.” So, you know, I mean, things go wrong.
I’ve had a couple experiences, like I remember the first time I ever played KEXP, the radio station in Seattle that’s nationally famous, I had massive impact syndrome around it. And I’ve gotten to play Crystal Ballroom and that was amazing, but I was like, “Do I really belong here?” I think all the work I’ve put in, in the last several years, and then also coming out of the pandemic and just feeling so proud that I didn’t give up, and that like…Having this perspective as well to realize that, like, I do have a music career, and it’s worth continuing to work towards it. It just felt like an accomplishment. I didn’t have impostor syndrome about it. It just felt good, like I belonged there.
The biggest thing for me is to just be authentically me as much as possible. Especially coming from trying to be a songwriter and trying to find my voice within that, you know, or playing for a songwriter who has such a diverse voice, trying to bring whatever thread of Elly that I can bring into it all, I think is the most important thing that I try to do. Not try to take on a character or take on a specific genre too much, but just find my voice in everything that I do.
It's like, what does it mean to be cohesive? For me, I think being cohesive is just being me in everything that I do, making sure that I’m making authentic choices every time, making sure I would make the choice I would make every time, and not thinking too hard about what other people think or what other people would do. That’s the basis for cohesion for me.
I’ve never really been much for collaboration, because it can be very stressful. I’n so used to having my own ideas be the most important thing. And when I do write and record my own music, I play all the parts, I write it all myself, and I record it all and mix it all myself, which was one of the driving factors, it was one of the reasons why I wanted to learn all these instruments and learn how to record, was that I wanted that control over everything. So this is all new to me, trying to collaborate and let other people have some level of say in the work that I do and contribute to other people’s work. It’s really taken a lot of pressure off of just the work of songwriting.
As far as being a recording engineer and a songwriter right now, I’m just trying to get back into recording, because that really dried up for me during the pandemic. But I love producing bands, I love engineering music. And as far as being a songwriter, like I said, I’m not super driven to do my own work right now because of the level of anxiety. But I’ve found that I’m really interested in co-writing and producing other folks. So, I’ve been trying to do some co-writing with a woman named Erica who goes by EMA, and she’s a great EDM producer. And, yeah, I’m just trying to find other folks, other musicians, other songwriters who I can support and co-write with.
For musicians, the ideal future would be more—or maybe I should qualify that, I think for pop musicians, anyone exploring a commercial career in music, there’s not a lot of financial support from institutions that give out grants and the government, that sort of thing. Most of that support is for maybe non-profits trying to do more community outreach, which is great. There’s a lot of support for performing artists that are doing classical and jazz and those sorts of things. There’s just really not a lot of support for “commercial musicians” because the assumption is that we’re the ones that are going to make the big buck. And there really is a class barrier and a financial barrier to getting to a point of having a healthy career in music.
I’d love to see more of that. I’d love to see more community support outside of GoFundMe and these sorts of things. It feels like you’re just asking all your musician friends for money, just passing the same 20 bucks back and forth every six months to a year. I mean, even playing shows, it feels that way. I’ll go out and support my friends when they’re playing their shows and they come to me and it’s like, who were the supporters that aren’t musicians, just passing the same $5 back and forth going to each other shows?
There are some folks kind of dabbling in non-profit record labels so that, you know, if you can get together a record label that isn’t really interested in making a profit, isn’t like a capitalist model, they’re just truly trying to raise money to support bands and help them get on tour, I think that’s a really good model. Actually, my personal record label as a songwriter is a guy that just does it as a passion project, he just has a little extra money to spend and he helps bands release their records, and takes on a lot of financial responsibility for that.
There’s something definitely in that. I do think that it gets a little hairy when it becomes the government’s job. The big change I’d love to see as these institutions that are already supporting music, open that up to more modern music, pop music, rock music, folks that are just trying to make a living.
A good example of somebody doing this: Regional Arts and Culture Council. They do grants for development that any one of us just playing shows around Portland can apply for. But a lot of organizations like that only open that up to jazz musicians and orchestral musicians. So those performing arts grants that Regional Arts and Culture Council does, having more of those available to folks like me and my peers from similar organizations, I can’t really speak to any other organizations but that one, but that’s what I’d love to see.
We do, as a people, really get locked on to some things and things that we really care about. And being able to spend a ridiculous amount of time absorbed in the fine details of the craft, has been a huge advantage for me, that I’m willing to spend four hours a day practicing the drums to just figure out the smallest details of a song I’m learning,
The biggest thing that I do is just make sure to focus on the craft, making time to make sure my chops are honed, to make sure that I can play any idea that comes to mind. And I definitely find that spending the time just to play my instrument does open up the imagination and the creative part of it for me. Even playing someone else’s song, I’ll get ideas in my head for my own songs. It just opens it up for me just to be playing my instrument.
I’m sure it’s different for every medium, but I think the most important thing in music is to listen. I find a lot of inspiration in just the practice of listening and not just to the same stuff I listened to every day, but exploring; exploring new genres, exploring, historical genres, figuring out where the sounds we make now really came from, those sorts of things. So, it just really broad in my imagination and my creativity. Those are the two things that I do to prep for kind of getting into the headspace of wanting to actually write music.
There are two sides to playing music. I think you have to work on your craft and spend that time like being in the present, being in your body, being in your brain while you’re actually practicing your craft and practicing your technique, so that when you do get on stage, you don’t really have to think about it anymore. I feel like my best performances are always times when I can sort of get out of my head and out of my body a little bit and just listen to what’s happening around me. And yeah, the flow state is exactly the best way to describe it. Yeah, that’s where I go.
The good thing about touring for me is I’ve almost exclusively done it with four other people. So, I’ve been a session musician in other people’s bands. And I just make sure that I choose trustworthy people who are going to communicate what I can expect. They take care of all the logistics. And then if I start to get stressed about anything, you know, they can recognize that and help me with it.
I do go out to shows but I make sure to go with someone who understands my needs. And I take a lot of breaks, I go outside by myself a lot and just kind of recuperate. I also am not afraid to just leave if I need to. Thankfully, I have a community and a group of friends that understand that if Elly disappeared, it’s probably because she’s overwhelmed.
I only just found out that I’m autistic a couple of years ago. Part of my pandemic journey was figuring out what’s up with my brain. So before I knew, it’s funny because I knew I had sensory issues. I knew that I needed to have a certain routine around the shows I would play. I would always get very stressed about playing in new venue. I wasn’t sure like how the random show was going to go. So I just would communicate, make sure that I had bandmates that understood, like, well, Elly’s just a very anxious person. And then upon finding out why all that stuff makes me so anxious, now I have the proper words to communicate, and I have the reason why. So my bandmates and everyone around me are even more understanding and are even more supportive now.
So as far as playing the shows, I mean, it’s a lot. I’ll wear sunglasses on stage, if I need to, if the lights are too bright. Like I said, I take a lot of breaks during the evening. If I have to go out to the tour van to just get some silence and some alone time, I will. And I’m just really lucky to have bandmates who understand that and take care of me in that way.
Not judging yourself for whatever accommodations you need, I think is the biggest thing. I think autistic people are often taught to look at ourselves in terms of what we lack or what is hard for us. And we judge ourselves for those things and maybe hold ourselves back. Whereas, if you look at yourself more in terms of the advantages that our neurotype gives us, and then figure out how to just find accommodations for the things that you need.
That’s been the biggest change for me, is to not apologize anymore, and to just expect the people around me to take care of my needs just like anyone else. Like, if somebody needs a certain kind of sleeping arrangement because they have a bad back or whatever it may be. I’ve been in bands with folks who like to drive a lot because they get car sickness, so they don’t like to just sit in the back of the van. We make accommodations for each other all the time. It's knowing those accommodations and not judging yourself for needing those things and really expecting people to come through for you. And then also investigating, like, what makes you a stronger artist because of your neurotype? For me, as a musician, pattern recognition is a big one. It doesn’t take me long at all to learn a song, you know, because I can just recognize how it goes very quickly.
Being a late-diagnosed person, I got very good at masking, and I can really put on a stage persona and kind of live in that world. And I have a really great time doing it and it doesn’t feel stressful. It takes a lot of energy like masking always does, but I’m able to then just make sure I get that energy back off stage, but it feels like an advantage.