Photos by Emma Noelle
Rare Candy recently spoke to Bay Area native Caroline Getz, the lead singer in Hexual Ceiling. With Grant Hiura on keys, Nate Charnas on bass, and Nathan Webb on drums, the group has built a sound that traces the outlines of the R&B genre. Brilliant beyond her lilting, honeyed vocals, Getz seeks intimacy with her listeners through the intersection of distinctively languid, jazzy tones and lyrics liberated from the confines of love songs. We discussed Getz’s songwriting influences, female empowerment, and the battle of the coasts.
by Hana Rivers
RARE CANDY: What sparked the genesis of Hexual Ceiling, and what is your songwriting process like?
HEXUAL CEILING: Grant, Nate, and I were all friends in high school in San Francisco, and we played in the jazz band together. That’s how we met, and then we reconnected in New York. Grant and I would go to the practice rooms at NYU. At first, we were just doing jazz standards. That was my junior year of college. For a couple years, we played at little places, but we weren’t doing original material, just covers. Then at some point Grant brought me an idea-- some chords-- and I started writing. I’d always written songs on my own, but I had never co-written with somebody else. I played guitar and sung, but it was kind of more along the lines of folk music. We started writing together, and it turned into this really nice collaborative relationship. I think it was really nice for me, since I had always wanted to unite my songwriting world with jazz.
RC: HC embodies a R&B-esque sound often associated with love songs, but many of your lyrics are about self-dependence and empowerment. Could you talk about your perspective on this intersection?
HEXUAL CEILING: Grant always likes to say that jazz “keeps us honest,” in the sense that we both appreciate interesting arrangements. When we write, we always try to ride the line between something interesting and making sure that it speaks to people, too. Singing always feels like . . . you feel things, you feel things, you feel things, and then at the top of that emotion, you open your mouth and sing. All artists have feelings they want to express, and most want to connect with others.
In terms of the empowerment aspect, I’m so glad that you got that from my music! I never really set out to write with any particular intention, but lately I have definitely been thinking about what I want to say, and the message that I want to put out there. As I grew more and more into myself, and became more and more comfortable with being myself, I realized that I didn’t want to be writing love songs where I felt like things were happening to me. Instead, I wanted to be the voice that was saying something strong, whether that’s to a romantic partner, or a friend, or to women, or to whatever audience I’m playing for. That empowerment aspect is what I wanted to put out there, especially because I was also imagining people singing along to the lyrics. I want people who come to our shows to move and to dance and to mouth the words. And I was like, well if I’m going to do that, what do I want them to sing?
You have to listen to Two Dope Queens! They’re these amazing comedians, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson. They have this podcast called Two Dope Queens, where they host a comedy show and they have different performers go on. There was one episode where they had Bob the Drag Queen on, who was the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and he has a song called "Purse First," which is a really fun and silly dance song. They asked what his writing process was, and he was like, “Well, I wanted to say certain things in songs. I wanted to do a song about walking into the room purse first! Or I want to be able to say I’m the reigning queen!” And so he put that in the lyrics. I thought that was such an amazing way to think about songwriting: you have an idea, and you want to express it, and you want people to sing along.
RC: What has been your experience as a female vocalist and as the only woman in HC?
HEXUAL CEILING: I fantasize about having more women in the band. I think anytime you see a woman, especially a woman instrumentalist in jazz, it’s so exciting. I actually went to see this amazing Afro-Peruvian jazz orchestra last week at this place called Zinc Bar, led by this woman named Laura Andrea Leguia, who’s an NYU professor, bandleader, and saxophonist. When I walked in, it was about twenty guys and her, and I didn’t know she was the band leader. Then when she took the mic and started talking, I realized. I was like, “Oh my god, this is her band. That’s so exciting!” There was another really cool all-women latin group called Cocomama that I’ve seen perform around. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the music industry, but jazz is a very male-dominated scene. However, I don’t really think about it with the guys just because I’ve known them for so long. Grant and I practice and songwrite the most together. We’re such a team, and we’re best friends, so our identities come into play in those particular ways. It’s not something that I really think about during practice, but being a woman walking around in the world definitely influences my music. Just how everybody responds to you; women are taught to live for being pretty, being quiet, being meek, not taking up as much space. As a performer, and especially as a lead singer, you have to step outside of that. You really need to take the reins. So that has been really empowering and has helped me in bringing that voice and that strength to other aspects of my life as well.
RC: That strength undeniably comes out in your music. Especially in one particular song, “Own Desires,” which goes, “Oh it’s a sweet life, living only for your own desires/and kindness is important yes, but never at your own expense.” Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration for that song?
HEXUAL CEILING: With that song in particular, I was like, "I hate male privilege!" It was about this guy who I was friends with and kind of romantically involved with. I remember him telling me one day, “Listen, you should be nice to people, definitely. And it’s a good thing to be nice but not if it’s costing you anything.” And I was like, “What? So you’re telling me to always have self-preservation first.” I think that’s a good message, but I had this moment where I was like, “God, men never have to do anything that they don’t want to!” After hearing him say that, I was like, “Well, cheers. I raise my cup to you.” You know? Because I could never think of myself all the time with no consideration for other peoples' feelings and be nice but never at my own expense. It just seemed so warped to me.
RC: At your recent Silvana show, I felt a sense of intimacy, almost as if the vocals fostered a one-on-one connection between you and members of your audience. How do you see the relationship between yourself and your listeners?
HEXUAL CEILING: That’s the ultimate goal, to foster communication in the relationship with the audience. That's a really nice aspect to the level of shows we’re playing now: I know most of the people there, and it’s a small venue. I always try to take a minute at the beginning of the show to look into the crowd and look at people’s faces and be like, “Who’s here? What’s the vibe of the room?”
There’s this pianist who I really love named Shai Maestro. I went to a master class with him and this other singer who’s a really big inspiration to me, Gretchen Parlato. Shai said, “Even if you’re a solo performer and there’s nobody else on stage with you, you’re actually not performing alone because the audience is the secondary party that you’re interacting with. They determine, in a major way, what the feel of the show is going to be.” Shai said that when he tours, the first thing he does is walk into the room and sit down at the piano-- he’s a really zen guy-- and just try to connect with the energy of the audience. Then he starts to play from there. I try to bring that to our live show, and I try to make sure that all the members of the band are connected on that level. We always do a little pre-show ritual where we get together offstage, and we say a few words and just bring ourselves into the space. This is obviously not an original idea, many bands do this . . . but it’s important to make sure you’re in a space where your energy is open to connecting with other people, because that’s the only way you can really lift off and have a meaningful connection. That has a lot to do with the audience and what kind of vibe they’re bringing.
RC: How has growing up in the Bay Area informed your songwriting? How has it changed with your move to New York?
HEXUAL CEILING: I played all the time in San Francisco. I would bring my keyboard down to the corner of Haight and Cole street all the time in high school. I had a lot of really beautiful sunny afternoons playing on that sidewalk, and all of these tourists and neighbors would come by. The big difference for me now is that when I was in high school, I played a lot by myself. I always really wanted a band because I realized that what I care about is collaborating with other people. I get so much energy from what other people bring into the room. It’s come together in a nice way, playing with Grant and Nate and Nathan. In terms of style, just living in New York takes your artistic expression in a different direction than the West Coast. The aesthetics in New York versus San Francisco are really different, and I appreciate each of them for their different influences.
I was into a lot of folk music growing in San Francisco, like The Weepies-- they’re a really cute folk duo. Or Neil Young. And then of course you listen to Bay Area hip hop, like Andre Nickatina and Mac Dre. You move to New York, and it’s edgier, everything is more. I’ve been here almost seven years now, and I like to think that New York has made me more direct. I really appreciate that now. There’s an honesty and a directness that’s really fun.
New York is the jazz capital of the world. You can go out any night and hear amazing groups. I’ve seen so many of my heroes play here. I feel really lucky to live in a city where whenever I need a little creative inspiration, there are so many options. I can go out and hear music, I can go to a museum, I can go to a friend’s art show. Even just walking down the street you see fashion that inspires you, you hear music on the subway. It’s everywhere. It’s fun. It’s electric.
RC: This is your first interview for HC. How do you feel about the public interacting with and interpreting your music?
HEXUAL CEILING: I hope people like it and that it speaks to them. I think when you write a song or make a piece of art you gotta know that it means one thing to you, and then you put it out in the world, and people are gonna take it and do what they will with it. But if it serves them in some way, if it makes them think about something or makes them feel something or allows them to go to a new place, then we’ve accomplished our goal.
RC: What’s next for HC?
HEXUAL CEILING: If you listen to our EP on soundcloud, it’s called So Hexual, you'll see that it’s just me, Grant, and Nate, just voice, keys and bass. It’s self produced, self recorded, and it’s a good snapshot of where we were at the time. However, adding drums has really changed the energy and dynamic of the band in a positive way. We sound so much more fun and upbeat. So I would love to record an album with this group. Grant is doing a masters in public health at Columbia, and Nate works for an NGO in Baltimore. The band is what we’re doing right now. It’s not something that I expect we’ll be doing our entire lives, but it’s a really fun way to express where we are in this moment. I would love to have an album as a physical representation of that. Other than that we’re just going to be playing shows, hopefully a couple a month, and we hope to connect with people and build those musical communities.
RC: Anything else you want people to know about HC?
HEXUAL CEILING: If any of your readers have a good idea for what genre we should be called, we’re open to that. We’re jazz, we’re R&B, we’re motown, we’re funk, and there’s a lot of music coming out right now that’s like that. You hear it in Frank Ocean and in Kendrick’s album. A lot of pop stars are turning to more interesting chord progressions or more jazz sounds, but we don’t know exactly where we fit into that! So if you think of a catchy genre name, let us know. We would love to see all you guys at our shows, and if anyone’s inspired by the music and wants to collaborate, through visual art or film or whatever, we love meeting new people. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about for us, making music that speaks to people.
LISTEN TO HEXUAL CEILING: https://soundcloud.com/hexualceiling