ABOVE: JOSEPH KECKLER
The first time we saw Joseph Keckler perform, in 2008, he sang "I Put A Spell On You." We haven't been the same since.
Is Keckler merely some iteration of the "downtown It boy," as has been pointed out by various trendy publications? He's certainly cool enough—and adorable, too, a dark-haired, sloe-eyed 20something who typically performs clad in skintight pants and pointy, size-12 shoes. But Keckler is also unusual among his milieu of downtown performance artists and new musicians—he's a performer who can actually sing, in a thrillingly deep, bass baritone multi-octave voice that occasionally veers into a soulful falsetto. In the past year, he's been awarded grants by MacDowell, Yaddo, and Franklin Furnace, and won the 2012 NYFA fellowship for his interdisciplinary work in vocal performance, writing, acting, and art.
Most recently, Keckler has been awarded a month-long residency at Dixon Place on New York City's Lower East Side, where on April 5, he will premiere his new show, I am an Opera, which he wrote as both satire and self-portrait. The show dramatizes some of Keckler's own dramatic high points—a bad shroom trip; the time he had sex in a pile of people (in John Cameron Mitchell's movie, Short Bus); the time he was discovered by his office manager at his day job drunk and snoozing on a piece of cardboard in a stairwell. Throughout, he employs his three-octave voice to perform personae of various genders and species.
We met with Joseph Keckler the other day, in the midst of an unexpected snowstorm. Over a cup of cappuccino, we discussed I am an Opera and Keckler's haunting brand-new music video, "The Ride." The video finds Keckler traversing Bushwick, the Lower East Side, and the Financial District in a livery cab chauffered by a modern-day Charon, and we're thrilled to premiere it here.
GERRY VISCO: What's your new song about?
JOSEPH KECKLER: Longing, departure...
VISCO: And the video?
KECKLER: The video was created in collaboration with filmmaker Laura Terruso. While both she and I often use humor in our work, this piece involves less funny business. There's a passenger and a driver and they're rolling through the streets of Brooklyn, then Lower Manhattan, then perhaps passing into another world.
VISCO: Which world?
KECKLER: I envisioned the driver as an almost Charon-like figure. We called Edgar Oliver and asked him if he might want to play the part. He replied in his extraordinary bass-baritone voice, which is simultaneously soothing and foreboding, "Oh yes, I love the idea... but I only have a learner's permit. Can I take you across the river Styx on a... learner's permit?" [laughs] I was trying to think about purgatory, in between states. For some reason, this song came out of that. I was making work in between forms and I was trying to make work that was about being in between worlds.
VISCO: How does purgatory figure in your new show, I am an Opera? You were taking some shrooms and you had a bad experience?
KECKLER: Well, that might have been a little more toward hell.
VISCO: What is your show about?
KECKLER: The show is a trip.
VISCO: A trip to where?
KECKLER: A bad shroom trip. The kind of performance I've done has always been a sort of memory theater. I tend to reconstruct my own experiences in a very detailed manner. My experience of this trip, when I had it, is an explosion of memories.
VISCO: After having that experience, what made you want to write a show about it?
KECKLER: It was an experiment. Instead of writing text, I had begun to write these little faux arias, but I wanted the form to reflect the content. I chose to treat the shroom aria in an operatic fashion because during that episode, I considered cutting out my voice box with a knife.
VISCO: Did you do it?
KECKLER: No, I realized there were more important matters at hand and instead flossed my teeth. I've never been a big drug person, but sometimes I have visions, which show up in my art. If I have a fever, I'm prone to hallucinations. I once heard a frog croak and a holographic frog jumped out of my pillow when I was six, and sometimes I would see tiny people dancing on my comforter. These supernatural episodes can become part of my work.
VISCO: Where did you write the song?
KECKLER: I wrote it over the course of a couple weeks in the La Mama ETC Theater rehearsal studio on Great Jones Street. I didn't know how to sing it; I was approaching it with a big lounge-singer baritone. Eventually I tried it in my falsetto voice, which I'm using more and more of for "pop" songs.
VISCO: And this song is part of your new show, I am an Opera
KECKLER: Yes, the song is performed in my show. Well, the song is a "ride" and the show is a "trip." I experienced a delirious episode in which I became possessed by demons and went spinning through many random moments of my existence. So I wrote an opera for myself to perform, based on that experience. A fractured opera, a faux opera.
VISCO: What's new about this show for you?
KECKLER: This piece combines different threads of my work—spoken word, operatic singing, and songwriting. I even cast one of my old paintings in the show.
VISCO: What makes you happy?
KECKLER: Adventures and coffee.
VISCO: What drives you crazy?
KECKLER: Thinking lustfully about coffee while I'm trying to go to sleep.
VISCO: You moved from Michigan to Bushwick. What's it like living in an apartment where the J train rattles by every few minutes?
KECKLER: The express train is like an alarm, but the local is like a lullaby. I can manage—I used to live above an evangelical church, and the preacher's pulpit was stationed directly beneath my bed. He held services at all hours of the day and night, sometimes by himself. He screamed about Jesus over a PA system from hell. And he always sang off-key. Once I went down wearing only a twisted bed sheet and asked him to quiet down, and he turned off my electricity. He had the power to do that.
I AM AN OPERA RUNS APRIL 5 TO 27 AT DIXON PLACE, 161A CHRYSTIE STREET, NEW YORK.