As a student at SAIC in the ’90s, Azita Youssefi built herself a reputation as a key player in Chicago’s musical underground — first as part of the no-wave outfit Scissor Girls, and later with the equally noisy Bride of No No. These days, her solo efforts reflect ferociously quiet exploration and untamed, introspective growth. How much of that do you think she credits to her time in school? What are you paying to learn here anyway?
F’s Brandon Goei got a chance to sit down with Azita to talk about her past, her future and the future of all you prospective arty types. “Disturbing the Air” comes out September 20th on Drag City.
Brandon Goei: How did you get your start as a musician? What were your key influences?
Azita Youssefi: While I was at SAIC, I was always in an environment of music makers, and I wanted to be a part of it. I was just doing whatever I could pull off at the time; I didn’t really think of influences. We would just come up with parts and play them over and over again, which led to the sound we had as the Scissor Girls.
BG: Was that one of the reasons you came to SAIC?
AY: No, I came to SAIC for Painting and Drawing. Those were always my natural skills, so I went to school for that, but music was always more of a social hobby for me. It just took over my life from there.
BG: Why did you leave the School?
AY: Actually, I didn’t leave. I graduated, but there’s a bit of news floating around somewhere on the Internet that says otherwise.
BG: So that sets the record straight, then. You also studied in the Sound department during your time at school. Do you find your work often reflects that course of study?
AY: Yes, definitely. My first solo record, “Music for Scattered Brains,” was a collective sound of my last few years at the School and ended up being pressed for my BFA show. Lou Mallozzi was the teacher that I studied most with and got the most from.
BG: Between your first and second solo efforts, there’s a big change in sound. What happened?
AY: While I was making the first record, I was still involved in bands like Scissor Girls and Bride of No No, so that sound was a part of that era. But when I started making solo records apart from those bands and school-assigned goals, it just sounded different, since it was self-directed.
BG: Are your newer records closer to a sound that’s more naturally yours?
AY: I don’t know that such a thing exists. I don’t even think that there’s a common sound among my solo albums. I’ve always done what I felt was interesting at the time.
BG: So was it a consistent stream between your group and solo efforts? Was there a breaking point between the different instrumentation?
AY: Even before Bride of No No, I was starting to play piano again, just as a hobby or a distraction, and studying classical music. Eventually, just like how the first bands I played in self-started from a side project, my solo career sort of took off from there.
BG: Let’s talk a little about your new album, “Disturbing the Air.”
AY: One of the main things I tried to do with this new album was include plenty of space and emptiness. There’s also a narrative being told in chapters throughout the record. I’m not sure you can take the tracks out of order and get what I’m trying to express. It’s largely a psychological character study that builds on itself.
BG: There’s a lot of room for contemplation and exploration in all of the tracks.
AY: I deliberately left out a lot of the written information from the liner notes, just because I didn’t want the listener to peg anything down as sounding similar to an era or another artist. In the end, I hope it comes across just as tones and space moving along together.
BG: Any advice for the young artists and/or musicians of the world?
AY: I’m not sure that I’m the best person to ask. The people that could give the best advice are the people that are good at business, which I’ve never been really good at. Anything I would say would just be me complaining and telling everyone to get the fuck out of art school. I’m not sure what that degree is worth anymore. Then again, people are starting to say that about all degrees.
BG: There’s an emerging theory about the “education bubble” — that everyone’s going back to school now, but won’t be able to pay off their loans once they graduate.
AY: Yes, I’d say that’s a definite danger. And with art school, it’s way worse. I’m not entirely sure how much anyone can even teach you about how to be an artist.
BG: But didn’t you take something away from your time at SAIC?
AY: Well, I did learn plenty of technical aspects from the Sound department, but I feel like much of that stuff isn’t too hard to learn by the time you’re a teenager messing around with GarageBand. Art school’s not 100% useless; you might not be able to learn how to examine John Cage at home on your own, but it’s certainly not worth all the tuition dollars. In my opinion, the best thing that SAIC does is teach you that you don’t necessarily need to do what anyone tells you. They teach you how to teach yourself, which is a little bizarre, but still valuable to some degree.
BG: Do you think it’s possible to be an entirely self-schooled artist?
AY: There are a lot of little things, mostly technical, where art school is the easiest place to learn. But the hours spent sitting in critiques — some people might find some sort of value in that, but I certainly never did. I always felt like I could always get the same amount of input from someone off the street.
BG: Are you planning to shift from music to painting and drawing, or to any other focus anytime in the future?
AY: I’m not so sure I entirely like the artist’s lifestyle. There are a lot positive points in being creative as a career, but there’s also plenty of bad stuff too. Most people can say that they hate having job interviews and sending around resumés, but being an artist or a musician is like having to sell yourself to everyone constantly. There’s never a point when you can just stand still and maintain a status quo. Then again, working for someone else puts your creativity in immediate danger; you’re working towards someone else’s goals, and whatever input you contribute ultimately gets whored out and eventually disappears.
BG: What’s the best part of being an artist?
AY: It’s definitely the purity of emotional output. When you can see the different elements of your work come together in a way that’s wholly mysterious and astounding. That’s the most gratifying feeling as an artist, but it’s also the part you have to learn for yourself.