EXCLUSIVE: Matana Roberts Part Two: Living on a Boat, Surfing the Rockaways and the NYC Waterways Code of Honor

By Maria Jean Sullivan on Jun 18, 2015 10:14 AM EDT
Matana Roberts "I'm at a point in my life where I want to make sure the natural world is more in my zone." -- Matana Roberts (Photo : Photo : Jason Fulford)

Living on a boat in the southern tip of Brooklyn has certainly afforded Matana Roberts lifestyle choices she may not have either had access to or the mindset to take advantage of. The mystical surroundings of the NYC waterways and the inhabitants therein have found a special place in Matana’s heart and creative force. Here, then, for our last interview segment we paddle out into the post-Sandy Rockaways and explore Matana’s solitary water life directive.

C-LITE: Are you still living on a boat in Sheepshead Bay?

MR: I am. I'm sitting on the water talking to you right now. The reason I want to live in this part of Brooklyn is because it puts me closer to a part of Queens I spend a lot of time in: the Far Rockaways. I spend my weekends, when I can, in the water out there.

C-LITE: Have you experienced any sort of correlation between creating music, living alone on a boat and participating in solidarity sports such as surfing in the Rockaways? Does being in tune with the ocean and the balance in your body affect your creative process? I know last year was a bit travel heavy for you.

MR:  I'm at a point in my life where I want to make sure the natural world is more in my zone. It’s always been in my zone but in terms of putting a particular dedication towards it; there are a lot of different directions I could have gone. I was craving just getting back to the land and learning how to farm. When I thought about my linage -- it’s like, I love farming and I love being out in nature but in terms of learning a skill, I want go back and do something even more primitive. During the time I was thinking about that, I was spending a lot of time on the water in New York City, which completely changed my whole perception of what being a New Yorker can be from the past four or five years or so. It’s this thing where you're like, “I like being out on a paddleboard, I like kayaking, oh no now Im surfing.” If someone would have told me when I was a teenager I would be living on a boat in Brooklyn I would have been like, “get out of here I grew up super urban". What I like about water traditions, particularly surfing, is there’s a punk rock tradition within the original [american] people who were really into surfing, not surfing competition, just being out there in the water.

I also wanted to get a better idea of the damage that we as human people are making on the planet and the way you see that is to be on a boat. The things I see floating while I've been out in the water in New York City; its really shocking. If it's not something you see everyday you kind of don't think about it. Living on this boat has shifted my idea of how I can lower my own carbon footprint. I've always been really interested in alternate ways of living. And, you know, I need solitary space to make the work that I make although I am also a very social person. I wanted to have a space where my friends could come and have an open door policy and not the crazy New York landlord thing. The last place I lived in I wasn't allowed to have parties of more than two or three people. One thing I feel is really missing for arts people in this city is just opportunities to get together, and people like to get together on boats. It's been really fun. I have a friend who's circumventing Long Island right now in a kayak all by herself. She's been out now for eight days and I think she has three more days to go. It's just her, her kayak and her tent.

C-LITE: That's so very amazing.

MR: Yeah, its awesome. I love those kinds of maverick personalities. To live on a boat I had to downsize. I'm definitely not living like a normal person in some ways. But it's also very strange -- I don't really wish to own things I just want do things. There’s so much I want to do and so much I want to see. I get a lot out of learning and that's the same way I approach a lot of my compositions. It’s the same thing being on a surfboard. You know, out of all the things I do in the water surfing is the scariest for me. Do you surf, by the way?

C-LITE: Not as frequently as I’d like; I can't even call myself a surfer per say but I love it. Surfing is something I have a hard time even explaining to other people because it's so esoteric. Something is there, in the water, there's some kind of spirit.

MR: You don't have time to think when you're surfing. As a composer, as a musician, as creative people we're always constantly thinking and often times I'll be sitting on this boat and I'll be doing a lot of thinking as I'm trying to process. But when I go into the water the only thing I can think about is how I'm gonna save myself.

C-LITE: Exactly. That’s the best part, even.

MR: Otherwise, you know, I don't have time. Catching a wave is about that moment, that feeling, that instinct. I like the way it’s transferring in my life so far and there are so many water analogies for art life. I mean, there are a lot of things going on for me here that I'm not sure If I feel like it's gonna be many years from now when I realize what it has done for me and what it is doing for me now.

C-LITE: Would you consider living on a boat a semi-permanent residence for you? Maybe spend a couple of years?

MR: I'll be brutally honest with you: living on a boat in New York is not do you say?

C-LITE: Easy?

MR: Yeah. It's not a dependable way to be someplace permanently. One of the reasons I moved on to the boat is because there were no big hurricanes predicted. I volunteered post Sandy in the Rockaways and on Staten Island, I remember being like, "note to self: never live near or on water because it [sandy recovery] was so traumatic" and now I see myself living this way. This happened so easy. I wasn't searching for a boat. It just fell in my lap and I'm like "ok, I'm gonna do this now." I really have a wandering spirit. I'm trying to stay committed to New York City and living on this boat was kind of a fight against having to. In order to live in some of the more trendy areas, paying a lot of money to live in tiny boxes -- if I'm gonna live in a tiny box I'd rather live on this boat.

The neat thing about getting more and more into water like this is your more exposed to different places. All the things I now know how to do I learned on the Hudson, the East River and to the Rockaways. I'm getting this wanderlusting urge and soon I'll be doing more travel in the south to conduct research for work. But, I don't know if I wanna live another winter on a boat The winter was really, there were moments when I was like "whoa, right, I'm out here." I'm from Chicago so I don't have a problem with cold weather. I said the same thing to myself when I lived in Montreal for a little while. I went through a couple of those winters and I was like yeah this is cold. I want to stay committed to New York City and I wanted to get a taste of what old Brooklyn is like and this part of Brooklyn is like no part of Brooklyn I've ever experienced. It's just different rhythms, different ways in which people relate to each other. Spending more time in the Rockaways, more time in the water communities, it's a different way people interact with each other. It's been a real eye opener for me.

C-LITE: Do you think the NY waterways have more of a humanitarian touch out there?

MR:Yeah, and that's the cool thing about navigating waterways. I've met some of the fastest friends I've ever had in my life because we were all on surfboards trying to catch really bad waves. It's not like the waves out there are that great. I've spent some time in California. I thought I maybe wanted to live out there for a while and I was there for three or four months and that's when I first started learning how to surf. I just couldn't completely relate to the California people. So being here, being out on the water with New Yorkers, is like this whole other thing. You have this New York energy but then there is also this openness that being out there in the natural world has taught us. It's a really great combination of urban beach people, or urban water people. So, if anything, in this period I'm just cherishing what it is I'm learning. I'm learning so much about creativity and myself and my own possibilities.

The crazy thing about water life is talking to other water people -- I don't ever really tell them what I do because sometimes I don't like to go into those kinds of conversations, but it's interesting how music and art has had such a firm imprint on how I learn how to do things, that I'm not able to just dabble. Music teaches you that the only way you learn is by repetition.

C-LITE: Yes, It’s one in the same: practicing to surf, practicing music. Interesting vibe you've got going on out there.

MR: I just want to make sure though, I'm not a surfer, Please don't say I'm a "surfer" because I'm not yet. I'm so bad, if you ever see me out you're gonna be like "ok I don't know who that lady is but..." I'm horrible. But that's the thing, I love being bad at something.

C-LITE: If your perfect at everything, there's never any room to grow.

MR: Absolutely and I'm not good at music either. The great saxophonist Von Freeman, said to me many many years ago: you don't want to be a prodigy or a master musician because once you've mastered something there's nothing else to learn so why do it. You just want to be good, so you always have things you have to work on. That's kind of the direction I'm going in. I was also mentored by saxophonist Fred Anderson. They both held down two [music] clubs that i spent alot of time in on the southside of Chicago and they both gave me a lot of great advice as I was coming up.

C-LITE: I'd guess that's why your intertwining so well with all these different types of people out there in the Rockaways.

MR: I actually love winter surfing and winter kayaking and I hope that doesn't mean I'm always gonna be doing those things. I like to keep going places that are a bit warmer but the Rockaways you know it’s...

C-LITE: It’s a special place.

MR: It's also rough out there. It's not simple. The community rules I've witnessed out there are a little uncomfortable and there's this weird mix going on right now. But post-Sandy there's been alot of interesting growth that's been really fascinating to watch. It's a lot of people from Brooklyn and other parts Queens coming out there and doing interesting things and a lot of interesting communities, more art communities popping up which is really fascinating. So my boat sits near a bike path that takes me to straight to the Rockaways.

C-LITE: It would be fascinating if you could pull up the anchor and go around the waterways. Has that ever been a plan for you?

MR: You know, it is so funny because a couple of years ago I had been kayaking most of the summer, (I'm still not the greatest kayaker but the fact that I get out there is really awesome), and I woke up one day and I was like, " I wanna sign up for a skippers license" or some sort of skippers class. The way I was able to get into kayaking was first taking free classes near Harlem. Then I was like, "Matana, that's so irresponsible! You don't need a skipper's license, you dont have a boat, where you gonna get a boat!?" But I'd been reading this book that Chapter 3, River Run Thee is based on about this ship's captain. I've been dealing with so much water and I convinced myself that was the reason why. So now this boat that I'm on I can't legally take out. A month ago I got my launch permit so I can take the other things out that I have access to and kind of explore a bit with friends. And also by myself; its fun to explore by yourself, too.

C-LITE: That's how growth happens.

MR: I get a lot of my ideas and inspiration out on the water where your having to just focus on the repetition, and the paddle or swimming. I love swimming; when you swim and you go in the water it really clears your a head in a way that other things just don't do. And I love learning how to surf because there's no wifi out there. You can't check anything. You have to focus on what's going on. I just want to use the remainder of my life focusing on those beautiful moments of being in these beautiful places and meeting more people who share my same value system.

C-LITE: Sounds like boat living is perfect for this time in your life, as though this lifestyle or opportunity came to you for a reason and your fully enjoying and truly taking advantage.

MR: Absolutely, definitely. It's a really nice to thing to be able to live by yourself in New York City, it doesn't always happen. Especially on an artist budget. I've been really fortunate, you know. I moved to New York City with $500 and a credit card into a crazy apartment with six other people by the airport in Queens. I just was like, "wow this is not what I thought." In that same apartment I once had to sleep with a bug net over my bed because there were so many, I love how the landlords call them water bugs but they were roaches. They would crawl into the bed. I've been through so many different things trying to live here and it's nice just for a moment to have something that's relatively solitary. It's relatively calm out here. The weekends are little wild but that's fine, too.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Matana Roberts, Rockaways, Sheapshead Bay, Fred Anderson, Von Freeman, Coin Coin, Chapter 3, River Run Thee, Classicalite Q&A

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