Produced by Victoria Vox.
Mixed by Geoff Stanfield.
The digital download includes PDF download of book.
Nirvana in REM is an audio-visual experience of 10 original songs by singer-songwriter Victoria Vox, inspired by 20 works of art by Fred Stonehouse. “These new songs have an atmospheric quality that is deeply emotional and psychological, as well as hauntingly poetic,” says Stonehouse about Vox’s music. In this 44-page book, together, they explore the connection between reality and the nonsensical world of dream logic.
Art Inspires Art
34 songwriters gathered in a warehouse basement for a game of spin-the-bottle one cold February night in 2020. The Holiday Music Motel was hosting their annual Love on Holiday songwriting festival in Sturgeon Bay, WI, and Victoria Vox knew the drill. She would be grouped with whoever’s feet the LED light affixed to an empty Jameson bottle landed on. Each newly formed group then spun the bottle again to determine which piece of art (out of 20 artworks by Wisconsin-based artists) would serve as inspiration for their song. Some artists came to talk about their art before a single note had been sung or before a phrase was thought up. But Vox and Fred Stonehouse, her randomly chosen artist, wouldn’t meet in person until a week later—a week filled with songwriting, music-filled motel halls, and sometimes joyous chaos—when she performed her co-write, “Quest for Love,” which had been paired with Fred’s Untitled painting of a humanized deer gazing forward. As many are the first time we hear Vox’s songs, he was struck.
Both Vox and Stonehouse are deeply colorful, thought-provoking, and touched; both hail from Wisconsin themselves—but each is a highly accomplished artist in completely different mediums. After the show, he approached her. He thought his enthusiasm for her piece might have caught her off guard. Nevertheless, he promptly suggested that she create a series of songs based on his work, and lucky for us, she agreed.
“After the show, there is always an afterparty where the songwriters continue to jam and play our freshly written songs,” Vox said of their meeting at Butch’s Bar, a self-described five-star dive bar. “Fred came to that, too, but as we had just met, most of our ‘meeting’ was over the phone, across two time zones.” Occasionally she would call to gather more backstory on a particular piece. But, she says, “otherwise, he really just let me curate which art pieces I wanted to use or was inspired by.”
The title for this album came during the writing of “Floating on Fruit”, inspired by Stonehouse’s work Garden. “Many of Fred’s ideas have come from his own dreams and the creatures in them, intertwined with his childhood and family history,” Vox said. “It all made for some very interesting songwriting.”
In early 2021, Vox had taken an online music production and songwriting course which focused on creating “vibes” manipulating recorded bits of music and instruments to create a song. “Working with samples can sometimes be limiting,” she said, “but like the four-stringed ukulele, the limitations made me stretch creatively. The mélange of sampled and live instruments, and the ukulele, sometimes affected, allowed me to construct some lovely soundscapes.”
Stonehouse’s paintings have been described as, “an amalgamation of woodland creatures and sometimes anthropomorphic beings from his wild dreams which are often accompanied by quotes or reflections of a vision half-remembered.” Changing just a few descriptive words, an astute listener could describe Vox’s work the same. The breadth of her musicianship, the boundlessness of her songwriting, and the dream-like state we enter as we are folded into the layers of poetic lyricism and tracks.
Only two songs on the album were previously written. “Eye of the Animal,” had been an orphan for about ten years but when Vox saw Stonehouse’s work, 21 Tears, she felt the song finally landed home. The other, “Think Twice,” Vox had written on the piano just two months before the artists met. When Stonehouse heard the fledgling song, he created the work Buried Thoughts as accompaniment. “I loved the creatures and the looks in their eyes. Each one tells its own story,” Vox said of Stonehouse’s unusual portraits. She reveled in the task of taking on so many unique characters.
Like Stonehouse, despite the emotion Vox dives into on any given song (be it humor, hope, ardor, regret), it is her voice that threads the needle and carries us through to the darned side of the trusty wool sock. We are once again wrapped in her strength with roots in jazz, folk, pop, and beyond. Between the two inimitable styles, there is a kind of synesthesia one could only dream of finding far beneath any semblance of pretense.
Originally from Northeast Wisconsin, Vox—an award-winning songwriter and performer—has lived in France, England, Nashville, Baltimore, and now resides in Costa Mesa, CA. She has graced the covers of Ukulele Magazine (U.S.) and Uke Mag (U.K.) and is considered one of the leading songwriters on the ukulele scene.
Stonehouse, whose work is collected by A-list celebrities like Sheryl Crow and Madonna, considers himself “just a guy from Milwaukee.” But Stonehouse is also one of Wisconsin’s most active and successful artists, juggling teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and multiple exhibitions in galleries from New York to Los Angeles and Berlin to Milan.
And yet these two found each other, not too far from their roots. There must be something in that Midwestern air, something intangible in the ether that grows from the fields and industry, the people and how they see and hear the world, that forms an understanding of the sheer depth and complexity of, simply, feeling.
Stonehouse, who has been influenced by folk and outsider art “was repeatedly impressed by the darkly magical songs that emerged from Victoria’s creative process.” He explained further, “These new songs have an atmospheric quality that is deeply emotional and psychological, as well as hauntingly poetic. Seeing how an artist from a very different creative vocabulary works and processes is tremendously enriching for how I understand my own artmaking practice, and I thank Victoria for letting me ride along.”
Collaborative in every dimension, pulsing forward while keeping a tab on the nostalgia of a time gone by, we meet in the fold as if by random and yet as though we were chosen. With our eyes and ears wide open, we witness this great unraveling. The menacing facade breaks layer by layer, and as the audience, perhaps we can see the light shine through what each artist, together, untangles. - by Rachel Anne Warren