If anyone can lay claim to the title of “Rock and Roll Nostradamus,” it’s Sarah Pinsker. Born in New York City and a present-day driver of the fertile culture scene in hip Baltimore, Pinsker is a true multi-hyphenate. First off, she’s a singer/songwriter who has released a number of noteworthy albums with her band, Stalking Horses. More prominently, she can now lay claim to being the hottest rising star in the world of science fiction, whose eerily prescient debut novel, A Song for A New Day, just won the milieu’s highest honor, The Nebula Award, putting her in the company of legends like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson and Neil Gaiman.
I stumbled across Pinsker’s book right as it came out in September 2019, drawn by the cool cover art, her background as a musician and its seemingly far-off but maybe too near premise, one steeped in the world of indie music making, technology and, one of my guilty pleasures, future dystopia!
In Pinsker’s novel, a deadly virus/pandemic unleashed by a terror attack that brings society to its knees. All public gatherings are prohibited for two decades, and everyone hunkers down quarantined in their homes, working and entertaining themselves via VR-equipped hoodies, and receiving most of their necessaries via drone from one mega corp. As gatherings are banned, so, too, are live musical performances. But, don’t worry, there are still shows, not in crowded bar and venues but streamed hologram performances of only the most visually appealing of acts coming from the HQ of mega promoter, StreamHoloLive, straight into your hoodie.
Starting to sound familiar yet?
Pinsker’s novel revolves around two women. First is Luce Cannon, an emerging indie artist on the cusp of a big mainstream breakthrough when the virus takes down the world (best character name for a rocker ever, right?). Then there is Rosemary Laws, a 20-something woman who doesn’t remember the time before the fictional quarantine who becomes a roving A&R person for StreamHoloLive. Her mission? To infiltrate the small underground network of clubs that still run live shows, illegally and until they are busted, to find new talent to holo-stream.
Musicians will love this book because it’s written by one of her own. Pinsker is someone who brings spot-on descriptions to the power of a kick drum, a power chord and the day-to-day lives of musicians, especially those who are scuffling to create and survive in both the old IRL and the new post-performance world.
How did Pinsker go from indie rocker to sci-fi darling? What commonalities does she see in her two creative lives? NYS Music gave Pinsker the chance to elaborate in the following Q&A.
Sal Cataldi: I understand your debut novel, A Song for A New Day, is an elaboration of a novelette you wrote five years back. What, from what you have witnessed as a musician and as someone who reads the headlines, made you conjure such a premise?
Sarah Pinsker: My memory of the seed for the initial novelette was that I had passed the “Our Lady of the Highways” shrine on I-95 again, and I was thinking about all of my touring friends who had written songs based on that lovely title. I think I had “Our Lady of the Open Road” before I had a story, and then I started thinking about a band on the road long after everyone else had exited that life, and what would have put a stop to it. I worked backward from there, thinking about the things that might be societal roadblocks, and the technological advances that would reinforce the changes.
SC: How does it feel to be the woman who predicted our socially distanced, outlawed gathering present? How did it feel when you started to see this fantasy of yours beginning to come true in headlines?
SP: Most near fiction SF writers I know don’t set out to be predictive, so it’s a dubious celebration. I’d wanted to talk about things I *didn’t* want to see come true, and head them off at the pass. When people ask how I got so close in my “predictions,” it just feels like common sense to me. Humans are sadly predictable.
It’s been frustrating to see people say that my book is anti-social distancing. It doesn’t glorify flouting restrictions on gatherings during a pandemic; the problem in the book is that the country stays that way long after the threats are gone. I think there are opportunities right now to create a new and better normal, but we also have to do active work to make sure that we still have music and arts and venues when all of this is past.
SC: How much of you is in the Luce character?
SP: Hers is an easy voice for me to write, but she’s not me. She’s an amalgam of a whole bunch of musicians I adore. I guess the part of her that’s me is the way she feels on stage; I took that from my own experience. And I guess I tend to be skeptical of new technologies.
SC: Sounds like you’re a diehard DIY indie musician. What’s the worst part of the corporate music business that is in this book, and actually just out in the world as a musician. Seems like MTV on steroids, with the accent on looks.
SP: I think I’d spoil the book in saying what I think are the worst parts of the corporate music business I wrote. If you look at what’s happening right now, the corporate venues will get loans, the arenas will make it, but the small clubs are drowning. Big musicians are doing fine, but the indies who depend on touring are struggling, as are the musicians who play senior centers and restaurants and libraries, and the people who run sound, the roadies and techs, the indie venue owners and staff… Some of my friends are doing online shows with tip jars, which is actually an opportunity to reach their largest audiences ever, but I can still easily see that access getting throttled. There are already corporations looking to take advantage of this situation, even while musicians try to do their best to survive. In the best of times it’s difficult to make a living at music, and it doesn’t need to be that way, but the system is set up to elevate a very small percentage of the musicians out there and not necessarily to make access easier for all.
SC: Now that we are in the midst of a streaming music present, what do you think about it? Any artists that particularly inspire you in what they are doing in the medium? Like your character, do you lament the loss of live performance?
SP: Right at this moment, I am extremely grateful for the musicians who are streaming shows (and the theaters, and the museums, and the national park cams…) It’s not like in my book, in that we are still in the moment where this is necessary and appreciated. I like clicking into a show and seeing people I know are also there in the comments. I like sitting on my porch at sunset and listening to musicians I adore.
There’s a folk musician named Susan Werner who has been playing Sunday night shows online. Sometimes she invites friends, sometimes she has a theme, but she’s always been good at mixing a fun stage presence and quick wit with her songs. She often has a sponsor or a charity getting some of the money, and donations/tip jar are encouraged but not mandatory.
A lot of folk and acoustic musicians are doing similar things. Rufus Wainwright was doing a song a day in his bathrobe — I haven’t checked in a few weeks to see if he’s still going. LEA, thisislea on most sites, is a DC-area musician who always did cool community-oriented stuff. I played at an album release of hers a few years ago, where she invited people to play a song of theirs that was in conversation with a song of hers, and then she would play the connected song. She’s done some virtual choir stuff since this started. I’ve seen some Baltimore bands like Gingerwitch and Manners Manners and Santa Librada do triple bills online where each band does a set, and at the end gives you the address to find the next set. And I know a couple of venues here have offered to open for a band to record a show without an audience.
So yes, I think musicians are making the best of it, and while I lament the loss of live performance where I’m in the room where it happens, these shows are still special and appreciated. They feel intimate, and I love seeing some of these performers that I haven’t had a chance to see in a long time, either because schedules don’t align, or they haven’t been touring in my area.
SC: Which came first, your music or your writing career? Tell us a bit about both, and how they inform each other.
SP: Career-wise, music, though I had written and submitted short stories for publication before that. They’re both forms of storytelling to me, with their own advantages and disadvantages and tropes to explore. In my twenties my stories got shorter and shorter, and I found myself telling stories in song form. I loved the immediacy of playing, and the collaborative nature of performance; even when you’re on stage alone, you’re engaged in a conversation with your audience. I can’t say why I switched horses back to fiction at the moment I did. I struggle a little with doing both at the same time, so my music has suffered for my success in fiction. I have a fourth album completed that I really need to get out into the world, but that just feels like too much.
SC: Who are your three big inspirations in each of these areas?
SP: I hate answering those questions, because I always feel like for every name I mention, there are a hundred more. In fiction, I guess I’d say Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Karen Joy Fowler, in terms of the way reading their fiction makes me want to up my game. In music? Argh. Um, I’ll just name one. My friend SONiA, from the band disappear fear, has been my model for what an ethical life in music looks like from the beginning. She’s a wonderful songwriter, a dynamic performer, and she’s comfortable with a band or solo and with adapting songs to both.
SC: You just received the Nebula Award for the book, which is the highest honor in science fiction. Did you at all expect it? What does it mean to your future as a writer? Are you the first musician/writer to win?
SP: I didn’t actually expect to win the Nebula. There were amazing books on the list, and I had assumed that one of those books was going to win. Getting onto finalist lists is always a tremendous honor in itself, and I don’t think it’s ever healthy to assume the top honor is yours, so I like to choose a book to root for that isn’t my own. That way, I’m happy if they win and surprised if I do. I think there have actually been other musicians who have won — Nicola Griffith and Catherine Asaro, among others, I believe.
SC: As an expert prognosticator and musician, what do you think the future holds for indie musicians and live music venues? Will this ever go back to what it was, or will there be a new normal based somewhat on what you created?
SP: I’m not an expert prognosticator, but I think what the future holds will very much depend on what we do right now. We should be helping venues pay their rent while they are closed, so they still exist when this is over. We should be giving basic income to everyone to encourage people who can stay home to stay home and allow those who can’t to do their jobs more safely. If we do those things now, we’ll have venues when this moment is over.
I do think there’s a lot we can learn from this, and there are things I’d like to see in a new normal.
There’s an accessibility in this moment: people who use wheelchairs and couldn’t get down the steps into basement venues get to see bands. Ditto people who couldn’t afford big ticket prices or didn’t have a way to get to a show, or didn’t have childcare, or whose health is too fragile even when we’re not in a pandemic to risk being in a crowd. We can definitely come back to a mix of both if we choose to.
We can encourage seeking out smaller bands, who may be playing to smaller crowds, rather than giant stadiums. We can normalize staying home when you’re sick, and we can normalize wearing a mask in a crowd if that’s what it takes to bring back live music. Music is about community, and we can continue to forefront that community-mindedness. But above all, we need to help musicians and techs and venues weather this with actual financial help, as they have in other countries. I’d rather wait longer in order to come back safely than rush it and risk the health of everyone involved, no matter how much I’d like to go to shows again.