Shannen Roberts is Cusi Coyllur, (coo-see coy-your), an Inca princess name, and is variously an experimental pianist, singer and mental health advocate, as well as blogging on various physical health issues. Speaking about amivulnerable she writes: “I hope this music video can help others understand the pain that trauma survivors go through and the urgency to stop normalizing abuse, especially the types that are often not recognized as harmful such as verbal abuse”. We spoke to her about her music, herself and her life.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s the story behind Cusi Coyllur and how would you describe your sound?
I wanted to start a solo project for awhile but was extremely nervous to do so. I didn’t believe I was a good enough musician and for awhile was having other people sing the head-voice range songs that I wrote.
I started to record, secretly, back in 2014, but it took me awhile to decide on my artist name.
I resonate heavily with my Peruvian heritage and have since I was little – I have journal entries of myself in first grade talking about different styles of traditional village dancing in Umbe and Ancash. Growing up, my mom would tell me stories of the princess Cusi Coyllur. She went through intense hardship and persevered to be reunited with her family. I needed strength and confidence to conquer my anxiety and pursue my solo artist dreams, so I chose the name Cusi Coyllur to claim my own throne.
My sound is experimental and theatrical, especially in my live performances. You’ll see me scream and mimic the crying of a panic attack combined with set design of sheets, wooden furniture, dried roses and interpretive dancing.
What motivates you and inspires your music, aesthetic and vibe?
I used to hate theatre and yet my music naturally became theatrical on it’s own. Amanda Palmer and The Dresden Dolls are a huge influence of mine and I think they heavily inspired my theatrical aesthetic and vibe.
Your track amivulnerable made quite an impression on us, along with its accompanying video. Could you tell something about the genesis of the track and striking visual piece?
The recording process for amivulnerable? was highly concentrated on perfecting the emotion I wanted the audience to feel from my voice. I wanted it to show feelings of numbness and confusion and was a process to create without sounding robotic. The repetitive beat was created mostly from my mouth, a wine glass and a wooden bowl and was meant to feel like someone is stuck…stuck in repetitive abuse…and yet has to keep completing their routine of going to work, cleaning the house, cooking…and to keep it together, they shut their emotions off as much as they can and become numb. They become so numb they feel weak. They become so weak they feel powerless to the situation.
Alex Floyd, founding choreographer of OdDancity, is the mastermind behind the music video. I’m so grateful to have met her a year (or two??) ago. I had an idea to create a music video on different types of trauma that takes place in abusive situations. Due to a loved one experiencing domestic abuse the day before our first music video meeting, that became our focus. She has a style of dance that is completely unique and she knows how to create an impactful story with the smallest of movements that people like me – someone with arthritis and other physical ailments – can do. We’re about to embark on another music video together and she dances live for my shows to bring my songs to life.
You’ve created a downloadable e-zine in conjunction with the release of amivulnerable – could you tell us a bit more about that? It’s a really unique concept!
You can download the zine for free here: http://cusicoyllurmusic.com/zine
I’ve made zines for a while now and have a small collection of zines I’ve gathered from zine festivals and just ordering them online. Zines give the power to self-publish to ANYONE. Printing these days is becoming more and more expensive and I wanted this zine to be accessible to everyone so I made the zine a free download (but will also have print copies in November). I think I started interviewing people for the zine about a year ago and just finished editing it tonight. :)
I love editing. I love writing. My zines and journalism are the best friends of my music, they can’t be without the other. The zine is an educational resource for those that were emotionally impacted by the music video and would like to learn more.
It’s important to have activism work accessible so that more eyes can read it and there can be less and less stigma on these issues and to hopefully lead to change.
Do you think of yourself as a musician or as an activist, or do you even think there’s a distinction between the two roles?
Whenever I try to make a distinction between those roles, it doesn’t feel right. The music I’m currently performing and releasing hold stories of heavy trauma and for me to just perform them without bringing awareness to issues such as mind obstacles (depression, panic attacks), verbal abuse, destructive relationships and more would feel like a disservice to myself and to the listeners. My music is a way to attract listeners to understand issues that would otherwise be ignored.
Yesterday I just posted a short video on my Facebook of a three-chord song about chronic pain. On Thursday I played a show for a Play Like a Girl showcase where I talked openly about physical and mental issues. I run an alternative self-help blog called The Strange is Beautiful and sold the guides at my show. My activism is always connected to my music.
What’s up next for Cusi Coyllur? Any upcoming gigs, new music on the horizon, other projects?
October 3 I’m playing a show at Vampire Lounge at 8 p.m. and am releasing another single / music video on November 13. Besides that, look out for a third single, an EP and poem zine releases !!
Photo by Luisa Ruiz