Albuquerque, NM's Levi The Poet has been impacting the indie circuit with his spoken word art and has more recently changed things up musically with his album Correspondence (A Fiction). Jesusfreakhideout.com's Mark Rice caught up with Levi to chat about his new album, his writing process, stories from the road, and what inspires him most...
This interview took place on: February 21, 2015.
Click here for Levi The Poet's Artist Profile page.
Levi The Poet:
Levi: Levi Morgan McAlister. Um… yup, that's it!
Levi: AND, Morgan means, "By The Sea," and I just wrote a nautical story, oh my gosh! So yeah, it's good.
Levi: I started writing in middle school because I didn't want to talk to anyone. *laughs* Literally, it was like, I am an introverted little kid, and I am going to start writing because I have a lot of things inside of me and it's therapeutic, so I was the guy who sat on the fence and wrote while everyone played soccer. The reason I started doing Levi The Poet was cuz some friend of mine that knew that I wrote asked me if I would come and read to open up their shows. Well, I didn't want to read, so I memorized and performed in a very loud, obnoxious way, and that was the first show! I think a lot of people hated it, but some people that were maybe into more loud, obnoxious [performances] enjoyed it, so then I kind of got more involved with the hardcore music scene and went from there.
Levi: *laughs* Um, I think… I don't know outside of I think it was a reflection of the music that I liked at the time, which was that hardcore culture. More than that, though, I think it was a reflection of how I felt at the time, which was very angsty, which was very pent-up. I think the way which I began to perform my poetry was a reflection of some of the… well… I mean, I don't want to deepen it beyond what it was, I just liked doing it that way, and when I wrote it, that was how I imagined it being spoken and performed, so it just came out the way that I had already visualized it in my mind. You know what I mean?
Levi: It was sort of topical. It was a bunch of hard stuff that I was writing through and working through, and that was just a reflection of where I was at.
Levi: Very different.
Levi: Well, a couple of reasons. I had done three autobiographical albums. I felt like I could either continue in that vein, but I didn't really feel like I had a whole lot new to say. I mean, obviously things still continued to happen, but I just started to think about story and the way that things are presented a little bit differently. I wanted to explore writing in a different way than I had explored it before. So Correspondence, or writing any sort of fiction whatsoever was entirely different for me. I wanted to be able to explore different concepts via a different medium, and I think that, as far as presentation of it, I'm not in that "yelling place," and I didn't want to try to do something else to act like I was. It was kind of scary to me because a lot of people that enjoy the work that I do like it because of that, because of the rawness and the--what is perceived to be--authenticity in it. But I knew that if I was going to do another thing in the same vein, it would be inauthentic because it is not the position that I was in or have been in recently. I also like the idea of words just speaking for themselves. I think a lot of times, whether intentionally or not, I like to overcompensate for the emotion, or with the emotion, to make sure everything got across as it needed to, and I think some of the things I've started to appreciate in other artists and understand more in my own art is that the words can be powerful in and of themselves without you having to yell at them full throttle every single time, you know? So it was an experiment. The whole thing was an experiment, and I loved it. I had so much fun with it. I'm very excited about it and I can't wait to start touring on it.
Levi: There were certainly bits and pieces of it that were. There were more concepts and ideas that I recognize in myself than it was [literal]. I didn't actually go on a boat, I didn't actually build a treehouse for someone, but what I actually do wrestle with is indifference, you know? What I actually do struggle with is that idea from "Chapter Three: The Great American Game," which talks about finding solace and comfort in suffering and wanting to stay there because it fuels creativity, rather than wanting to be free. There are aspects of the lives lost throughout the record that do reflect some of my own story, so there were more things like that going into it.
Levi: Why a whaling ship? Man, I don't know. I've always loved the ocean, and I think that, you know, you always see Instagram or Twitter pictures with the water in the background, and I think artists are kind of drawn to the sea. Maybe that's not always true, but I feel like that is a pretty common recurring theme among different artists that I've followed. There is something sad about it. There is something exciting about it. There is a vastness to it that is overwhelming, you know? You go to the Grand Canyon, you are overwhelmed, like you are standing over some sort of majesty. And I kind of feel like that about the water too; it terrifies me. I can't imagine being out on a whaling ship forever, you know, just floating about at sea. So there is some of that. There is also some old stories that I love. You know, whether that is like a Biblical narrative, like Jonah and the whale, or maybe it is like Moby Dick, or maybe it is memories that I have, like crossing a ferry from a peninsula to an island with my dad when I was younger, and we went to ride a ferris wheel. There are all these things that just kind of culminated in it. And, also, theatrically, you know I made reference to Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom, and [your review] caught onto that right away, and I love that story. It's almost weirdly and almost grossly mature at times, especially involving these young children, but it is this children's story at the same time that somehow encompasses all these adult themes as well. I just think that he is kind of a master of that, and I wanted to explore kind of what it would be like to explore some of the same things that he did.
Levi: Um, I don't know… 1700's? 1800's? Whenever whaling did happen? But also, you know, there are all sorts of modern day movie references and film, you know, like telephones. There are all kinds of things that also wouldn't have existed in that timeframe. And that was just kind of the childishness of the story that I wanted to include. I'm like, "Okay, this obviously takes place in some sort of setting, but not fully." I think, I hope, that that added to the mystery, the fantasy, the mythology of the story, cuz you have all sorts of references to old Greek mythology and then combined with True Grit, John Wayne, you know there is just all kinds of stuff that kind of clashes, but hopefully builds up some sort of setting that you can exist in as well.
Levi: Aw yeah, aw yeah, I love that movie.
Levi: Um… wishful thinking… can you elaborate on what that means to you? I just want to understand a little more before I try to answer.
Levi: To the extent that I think imagination is poured into this story, sure. I love the idea of building a treehouse for your girlfriend because you love her. That sounds like a coming-of-age movie that has really nice, warm lighting and film shots that are cut together like Where The Wild Things Are. You know that one? He goes through and he runs around and there are all these falling leaves and such. You know, that sounds really fun to me. Will that ever come to happen? Will big creatures come and frolic with me through the woods? No. BUT I like that idea. And as far as Correspondence goes, my hope for it and for whatever I end up doing is that it would be, and this is kind of an ongoing theme that I keep pointing towards whenever I'm pushing the album or whenever I'm talking about it is, I want it to be a story that exists beyond itself. So, as a piece of art, I'm fine with it existing on its own. That is totally fine. I believe in creating good art. I think that you should do the best that you can to create the best art that you can because I think that that is valuable. So there doesn't have to be an agenda for creating something, outside of just creating it. My hope though, as somebody who believes a certain thing, and has a certain worldview is that this story, just like anything that comes out of my mouth or out of my life, is an overflow of my heart that will point people beyond it and into something else. So one of the main motivations for writing Correspondence (A Fiction), was C.S. Lewis and his view of beauty, because before C.S. Lewis was a theist, let alone a Christian, he was an atheist, and one of the things that perplexed him was that he couldn't understand why he longed for something more than the beauty he saw in a tree or a flower or whatever he was. He was like, "Why doesn't it just end there?" But beautiful things point beyond themselves. And that was a concept that I loved and that I resonated with. I mean, why do we stand at the Grand Canyon? Why is it so overwhelming to us? What is it inside of us that longs beyond the visible things that we can see? And that is what I want, or at least some of the questions that I want, or that I believe Correspondence can draw out. I hope that makes sense.
Levi: Sure, man.
Levi: So, "Kaleidoscope" is not, at least in the sense that those things actually happened to me, autobiographical. That is probably the first piece that I wrote that is related to, but not specific to a circumstance in my own life. Really what "Kaleidoscope" is, there is a heavy side and a light side. The light side is that I love P.O.D.'s Fundamental Elements of Southtown cover, with the weird Buddhist guy who has drawers coming out of his stomach, and I was like, "Hey, it would be cool to write a song about compartmentalization." That's the first thought that I had when I started writing "Kaleidoscope." The heavier side of it was related to things that I had seen, heard, experienced, and the built up this fictional narrative around (fictional, not as in fantastical, but as in, there is not actually a woman that I know specifically that that story is based off of). Um, so it is about this woman that had been sexually abused when she was younger, and she is now a prostitute. She has a daughter, and she is trying to support her daughter. She is enslaved within this weird system, and she doesn't really know how to get out of it because her identity is in the things that have been done to her, and that is all she knows how to function out of, so even deeper than the trafficking or sexual themes or whatever, what it really is is an identity piece. Where this other guy, this other character in the story comes along and says, "Hey, I wanna buy your time, but I just want to love you, and I just want to to see that you are worthwhile and you are valuable. I want to care for you. I want you to know that you are loved." And in the story, it challenges her identity, right? Like, we all function out of some sort of identity, and as a Christian, I long for my identity to be in Christ, but truth be told, my functional identity, probably more often than not, isn't, so it's like, "What do I need to accomplish so other people think I'm cool?" What? And that sucks. So it is an exploration of that stuff. So the story kind of ends without resolve, honestly, you know? I like the idea of a happy ending, but sometimes, there is not a happy ending, and in the context of the entire story or all the work that I have done, I hope that that story, for people, at least it does for me, ends at, "At the cross of Christ I know," another line from another poem called "Resentment," and if I'm performing it live or whatever else, often times, I'll end with "Resentment," and that story, along with the rest of them, will end up there. But I intentionally left "Kaleidoscope" open-ended because it is just like we are alluding to this woman's worth, and she is contemplating it still.
Maybe that was too long, but that is some idea of what "Kaleidoscope" is.
Levi: Um, … phew!
Levi: Because all of them came out of such an autobiographical place, it is hard to make a distinction. A couple definitely come to mind if I can say a couple of them.
Levi: One of them is "Leviathan Grew Up Inside Of A Broken Home," combined, I think, with--maybe you could call it a sequel, "Van Morrison Will Always Remind Me Of You." Both of those are about my dad, one of them written before his suicide, one of them after his suicide. Both are very heavy and exploring God's goodness, his grace, our pain, our suffering, what joy looks like, joy as different than happiness, my fear, my unfaithfulness, and hopefully, the Lord's continued faithfulness even in the midst of that. So those two are really valuable to me. "Resentment" is really valuable to me because it is like a coming-of-age type of thing. It is a very quick and brief overview of a young life to later life (I mean, I'm 25, so not that late). And it ends with such a clear picture to the cross of Christ and what he accomplished in relation to my life. And I always come back to that and I pray, even in the midst of times where I struggle to believe some of those things, that the Lord would continue to bring me back to that place of seeing, like, "This is accomplished at the cross." So that one…
You know, I always thought it was weird when writers talked about the things that they wrote and they loved, so this is not any arrogance, or I hope not.. well, there is probably some, but…
Levi: Yeah. And then there is one called "College Ruled Lines." And I loved that poem. There is a line in it that says "We are more free together tethered to our maker than we ever were before." And really that entire piece is kind of an exploration of God's sovereignty and who he is in relation to who we are. It is kind of this Reformed ideology that I was exploring at the time, and that I found a lot of comfort in. So I like to be able to come back to that and be like, "OK, I often want freedom," but I don't think that human freedom is truly as freeing, at least in relation to true joy, to true fulfillment, as being tethered to who Christ is, and the boundaries you have to set up for me not to restrict and constrict me, but to lead me into a place of true freedom and true joy. So I really like that idea. I think that is an idea that we see in the Garden, when God gave this ordinance to Adam and Eve, like "Hey, don't go after this thing." And the serpent comes in and says, "God's trying to suffocate you by giving you rules," when in reality, God is trying to love and protect them by giving up boundaries we constantly want to go beyond. But I do think the times that I have been the most joy-filled are the times I have been truly tethered to him.
So those are the poems that I would say go down as my favorite right off the bat. And the whole new album is like one long poem, and I love it. It is my favorite thing that I have written, I think.
Levi: "Pretty in Pornography" is one of them. Whether that is because porn is a…, well, one, it is a struggle that a lot of people, male and female, resonate with and deal with, and two, because is it controversial and kind of taboo in the Christian world, and at the same time, it is so rampant that is anybody talks about it. It's like "Oh my gosh, thank you for opening up, now I feel like I can open up." And that is really exciting. I like that the Lord has allowed my art to be able to influence people to open up in their own lives. So probably "Pretty In Pornography." And "Resentment." I really do think that "Resentment" just encapsulates such despair and such hope simultaneously in that piece. There is a lot to both weep over and rejoice in.
I don't know. You're a fan. Do you like it? Which ones do you like?
Levi: "Harsh Man" was a fun one for me.
Levi: Yeah, it is strange, I don't have a good voice, I don't think. But is it strange. I always grew up loving Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst and all those guys, and they just sang with the grossest voices, and I'm like, "Whatever, I like this." So I have this weird, somber song and I'm gonna do it. I'm glad you like it. Thanks!
Levi: One of my worst tour stories was staying at a place in Lawton, Oklahoma with a band that wanted me to stay with them. My other friend was out on the road with me, and I already had a place for us to stay, but he committed to having the both of us stay at this band's house. So we walked into the house, and I was really sick, and my car had just broken down, so I was already upset. Then we walked into the house and there were, like, a hundred beer cans that were just thrown into the corner of this living room spilling out into the middle of this floor, plus a bunch of cigarettes that they would flick into the pile because there was already beer on the ground. And then they wanted to stay up all night and play prank phone calls, and I was like, "Are we in second grade? What is going on here? I am so sick and so tired, I just want to go to sleep." So they had a bed, but they didn't want me to sleep on it, so they only had a tile floor, so I slept on the tile floor, and I asked if I could have a blanket, and they got me a mustard-covered sheet out of a kitchen cabinet for me to sleep with in this cold, cold room next to a furnace that maybe was on for part of the night. And I was *laughs* so mad at the guy that committed us to staying at this place. It was so funny.
Levi: Yup, that is the tour story of stories for me.
Best story, man? I mean, obviously, there are things that, career-wise, were really exciting, or progression as an artist. My wife and I got to go to New Zealand to play a festival. That was really exciting. There are things that are rad that we have been able to do in front of a lot of people. I think that the stuff that is the most fulfilling, and continues to be, is when other people are helped along by the content. When somebody comes up and says, "Hey man, I get this. I understand this. Thank you for talking about this. Hey, my dad committed suicide. Hey, I've struggled with porn. Hey, the beauty that you are describing in your new album points me beyond the record and into who God is. It reminds me of him as a good creator." And stuff like that, you can't trade that for anything. So, I think that the shows and the runs and emails and all the type of stuff like that, that reflect and resonate in my heart as the most valuable purpose or fruit of what this project is. And that might sound kind of like false humility, cause obviously I'm excited about things. I like making money. That is great. I like paying for my house. I like paying for my food. I like providing for my wife. I want to make more money. That would be fantastic! I would love to give myself a raise, blah, blah, blah. But, when that stuff fades away, I really am most excited by what it has looked like through this project to love other people, whether I knew that I was accomplishing that or not.
Levi: Well, Mark Rice, obviously!
Levi: You're in, man you're in. Wow. That is so funny, I'm trying… wow…
OK, you know, this is one of those questions that you think about for a long time following the interview, and then you're like, "Dang it, I should have said this person!" But, we'll just go with people off the top of my head.
I think I would have liked to have interacted with Eminem. I love Eminem, so we'll put him in there. Um, Kanye West is the weirdest person in the world to me, and he blows my mind, and I think I kind of like it a little bit. I mean, I'm not like *laughs* certainly not subscribing to his worldview, but he's just a super interesting dude. I think he would be either horrible to hang out with, or really fun. So maybe him. But if you get two rappers in a room together that are that arrogant about themselves, I might get shot, so I dunno…
Outside of that, I am fascinated by C.S. Lewis. I, for some reason, like Martin Luther, because that dude was like… I feel like his conscience was so afflicted constantly, and he was always wrapped up in his head, yet he had these ideas about the grace of God that were so transformative, so I think that he would be interesting…
Levi: Yeah, I think we'll call that four. And um…
Levi: Jesus. There you go. Jesus.
Levi: Um, thank you. Scott [Fryberger] began covering some stuff from me a long time ago, and it has always meant a lot. And you guys do a great job of really putting thought and time and effort into the reviews that you write. So I appreciate that. It is not just something where, "Oh, here is an album. It's great." It is thoughtful, provocative, so thank you for your support.
Levi: Thank you.
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