The works of photographer and filmmaker Charlie White expose uncomfortable truths encased in a shell of normalcy, like nightmare terrariums displayed in broad daylight. His work has unleashed monsters into suburban environments, infused ugly outsiders into socially streamlined settings, and examined the behaviors of the American adolescent in the wild. White now collaborates with avant electronic musician Boom Bip aka Brian Hollon, on a new endeavor: Music For Sleeping Children. For the project, White conducted audio interviews with adolescent girls "within driving distance of Santa Monica" then Hollon would create music inspired by the interview. White mined his experiences conducting a photographic study of a Southern California teen girl, Cyrilla Strothers, and pushed his research further, creating a cross-section of what it's like to grow up a girl in America today. The subjects reveal anxieties and expectations of their futures, as Boom Bip's dance-pop beats percolate under the surface. The end product is a five-song "public EP," offered for free online, and includes 12 images from White's CYRILLA STROTHERS PROJECT, 2004-2006 that was culled from 11,000 images, 50 of which he planned to release twenty years after the project began.
Artbound met up with White at Hollon's South Pasadena home and discussed the project's inception, the emergence of Valley Girl linguistic monoculture, and the economic might of adolescent American girls.
Drew Tewksbury: Why do you spend so much time studying adolescent girls? You've spent a huge amount of time focused on them as a subject.
Charlie White: I think that you can tell a lot about a society, culturally and economically, by the way they treat their adolescent girls.
Drew Tewksbury: So, it's something we have to talk about right away. Isn't it really awkward to tell people that your field of study is girls? Are parents really cautious of you?
Charlie White: For me, not really.
Brian Hollon: It's always at the back of your mind.
Charlie White: For this project, you're not looking. I think as a photographer, you're looking and that's complicated. That's more complicated. But in this case, to be completely transparent, it was, "This is Brian. I'm Charlie. This is Chris the engineer. Nice to meet you. This is where you are. This is what we're going to do. This is the release, read the release. If you have any questions, let me know." Where we are in Southern California too. It is the familiarity of that process, that is so odd. 99.9 percent of the rest of the country, the notion of production is unknown. But here in Southern California, production is a way of life.
Drew Tewksbury: How did you guys first get involved in this?
Charlie White: I was offered an opportunity. Aldridge Museum in Connecticut was going to exhibit a cartoon I'd done OMG BFF LOL and they wanted to do it as a standalone exhibit, just the cartoon in the gallery space, which made a lot of sense. I really liked that, and that ultimately was enough, not to show photos and just highlight the 4'x3' monitor, which was important to have people hear the cartoon throughout the museum and ultimately see it when they arrived there. When MOCA did the show at the Geffen, they had the cartoon there and it permeated the whole show with its horrible, obnoxious, high pitched voice. So they then extended this offer to do something unique for the web and I was wanting to take this track that was made somewhere in between the American Minor film and BFF LOL cartoon that was a clap or jump rope tune called "We Love to Shop."
It was a very simple: girls singing this song and I wanted to elevate it to something that was large, like a club banger. Something with a completely big sound. So [we] went to Lex, which is Brian's label and they started to talk about the possibility of putting someone who was appropriate and Brian really was that person and you had just done "Sacchrilege."
Brian Hollon:I did this EP called Sacchrilege because it wasn't the typical down tempo booty stuff that I'm known for. It's more upbeat. I worked with my girlfriend who did this song called "Coogi Sweater." It was very similar.
Charlie White: That was it. It was perfect. I got "Coogi Sweater" and thought this was so it. It just had a girly-ness to it.
Brian Hollon: It was girly and really glossy.
Charlie White: Then I gave Brian the clap-along, which I think was really challenging because it was not that good.
Brian Hollon: It was short.
Charlie White: [singing with a double-Dutch cadence] "We like to shop. That's right. And dance all night. Hair care, diamond wear, and..." I had written it and was like, "Let's make a whole pop song out of it." Really, Brian was singularly doing it but it was the beginning of us working together and coming to a point of agreed taste.
Drew Tewksbury: What was your role in the production of the music?
Charlie White: I've never sat with Brian at the deck. I've never looked over his shoulder, I don't see myself as knowledgeable [in music]. I see myself as knowledgeable as a music listener, not in the production of it. So my language and descriptions of what works is really layman. Ultimately that track really worked. It became a big sound. Aldridge got it, Lex released it. It got picked up a little on the radio in the UK and MTV approached them and acquired it purely for the instrumental part to use in a movie. It was a nice thing that happened where this teeny tiny 15-second thing expanded into a track. Then jump three years later, Brian and I met after it was all done and we realized that we got along as people too.
So the idea was very much, from the outside, a teen-pop album. It would be three years until I would then first start talking with Lex and saying, "This is the idea, this is the concept. I want to work with Brian. I want to try to make something that's a full album that does this," which was a take on these interviews with adolescent girls that I've been working on for a long time.
The idea of each adolescent persona was thought of well in advance of who would be coming in and what we would capture in the interview. It was an idea of taking a one to two hour interview and boil that down to a track.
Drew Tewksbury: Charlie, can you describe the project itself, what you intended to do with the interviews?
Charlie White: The idea in the beginning was to look for someone incredibly talkative, incredibly smart and articulate because that would render a successful discussion but also someone that was a true teenager. In the beginning it wasn't based on type. This means that me and Brian were there and Sabrina (the first girl) and her mother were there. [Sabrina] is a very smart woman, but also neurotic and anxious. They all had to be able to drive to Santa Monica. The net was not cast very wide. I'm a 40 year old male, I'm not going...
Brian Hollon: You're not going to the mall...
Charlie White: Exactly. But we had some really good stuff. We had Brian's music to show them, we had my photographic work to show them. We had the first track to show them as an example. In these cases there has to be an incredible degree of transparency because you have to say exactly what you're doing, exactly what your intention is and why. We had the elements to build that case, so people would be comfortable and interested and would want to do it.
Drew Tewksbury: Brian, what made you interested in working with Charlie?
Brian Hollon: I worked at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 2002 and I saw his work "Understanding Joshua." I was actually in charge of hanging his pieces in the gallery. It really stuck with me. It reminds me a lot of my nightmares only because you have the monsters breaking into mundane situations, which was something that even in my daily life, I always imagined some horrible event getting ready to happen. And that stuck with me.
So when Lex approached me about working with Charlie - there was also Interpol, too. I had supported Interpol on their 2005 tour, and they had mentioned they were working with Charlie. So when Lex sent me the email, I was really excited. I had no idea how that collaboration would work, so immediately it was a challenge.
Charlie White: Brian came to a number of the interviews. They really were my work being realized and Brian was able to talk to me in really logical ways because his ear would be really beneficial to the track and capturing the character. That half was mine and the studio half was completely yours. And we would have really comfortable discussions. On one track, "Georgia," I mentioned to him that I really liked the idea of the power up sounds of the game for the notion of popularity. Things like that traffic back and forth between us in dialogue and could feed and fuel the project but neither of us got into each other's own unique territory beyond a certain point because we don't work in each other's territories.
Drew Tewksbury: Did people think you were making fun of them at all?
Charlie White: No. The parent is with us in the sound studio. I think that in the end, I actually feel like the five tracks are more empathetic than we imagine them to be and more sincere than we could have written. If it was about scripting a voice, we wouldn't have been able to script the sincerity.
Brian Hollon: And Charlie's questions weren't that specific. The reason we had three hours with each girl was just to let them talk, to let them go on and on and on.
Charlie White: It was less than an interview, it was really prompts. As a teacher, I understand talking with prompts to students. It's not the biggest leap to talk to a high school student. And it's not the biggest leap to imagine issues for teens. Even starting with "tell me about yourself," the initial menu of options one has for the next question. The very beginning of Sabrina is close to the beginning of the interview and she says, "My parents are very expectant." If you break that down, it's a very intelligent voice and a very understanding, or self-aware individual. That's the initial line, but once she starts to feel what she's saying, the speed goes up to eleven. "And what if I bring home a report card and it's all A's but then there's a B. What about all the A's?"
Brian Hollon: She was running herself off a cliff.
Drew Tewksbury: Not every girl is like that, but those interested in the project and their parents, would maybe tend to be of the "A" personality, go-getter's, the student council types. How did you pick the ones that became the final tracks?
Charlie White: They submitted an audio file of "Tell me about yourself," so there is an initial thing where I can listen qualitatively to the voice. Is it a good voice? When I was 16, I sounded like an adult. My mind was a 16 year-old's but my voice was too low. So it's really hearing the voice and screening for people. None of our subjects were aspiring young actresses. That was very different. That's a completely different subset of people. I leave it to the casting agency to reach out. That's their process, that they go out and do this. But fundamentally, these were people who found this to be an interesting opportunity. We were in a very professional, comfortable sound studio and that had an incredible effect on the parents, on the girls, on being relaxed, allowing them to open up.
Drew Tewksbury: Your recent work "Casting Call" was displayed at LACMA as part of the Sun and Other Stars exhibit. Like those casting call photos, these interviews with Southern California adolescent girls is kind of ethnographic studies. Did you intend for that?
Charlie White: Totally. I was interested in a certain type of idiosyncratic and iconic girl type. Once we had Sabrina, after that it became gradually more and more strategic because we couldn't have another Sabrina. So the goal to have seven tracks, and ultimately coming out with five tracks, each one had to be distinctly different.
Drew Tewksbury: So how many days recording?
Charlie White: Five. One a day, spread over months. We wouldn't go to the next until we had the track because we had to understand both the subject and the musical quality. What Sabrina sounded like as a track determine what the next track wouldn't sound like.
Drew Tewksbury: Brian, how did you choose the music to go along with these?
Brian Hollon: It was really the personality. We based the music around the personality and the stories they were telling.
Drew Tewksbury: So how does that translate to sound?
Brian Hollon: For example, Sabrina was very anxious and neurotic, so there was kind of a dark tone in there. And it's dancey. We also have Georgia who's really perky and pink and sparkly and the track was really bouncy like a pop tune. It's all major chords and happy. We have Isabel who is kind of a goth girl who had a very soft, slow speaking voice. So the track is slow and moody. So I would find the tones in the girl's voice, find the bits in the interview that represented the girl's personality and just focus on those. When we were sitting there in the interview, there would be moments when the girls would say something and Charlie would look at each other and smile as if to say, "That's perfect."
Charlie White: Sometimes the girls themselves really offered a meter [in their voice]. So there's a moment with Sabrina, where she would say something like "da-da-da/da-da-da/da-da-da" then end with the phrase: "that would just suck." And boom, we'd have it. You think of it in terms of lyrics or poetry. That's the meter, that's the end.
The next narrative cluster can pick up after a certain amount of time and that type of structure happened. Isabel, who had an incredible manner of speaking but was one of hardest one's to stitch together narratively, what she offered from the outset was her own clear narration: "Do you know those girls who always had crushes on boys? That was me." There she is.
Drew Tewksbury: Two ideas strike me from what you're saying. One: Linguistically, Southern California has a distinct speech pattern. And two: This speech pattern has become a driving force in the spread of monoculture, in adolescent girls, and men too.
Charlie White: I find that I react and talk a 12 year-old girl sometimes. There has been a feminization of men's culture, in the way we talk.
Drew Tewksbury: And infantilization too. Men and women talk like babies now, saying "yay" all the time, and how internet speak, emoticons, LOLz or whatever has popularized this cutesy language.
Charlie White: So much so, that even a recent advertisement for the military, what used to define masculinity, adopted the language.
Drew Tewksbury: In a lot of ways, because of exports like MTV and television, this form of speech is becoming ubiquitious in America. It is spreading across the country. You could land in Minnesota and meet someone who sounds like a "Valley Girl." That cadence has even spread outside of the U.S. to young women in England and Australia, and elsewhere. Where you attempting to record the "Valley Girl" sound, like you were Studs Terkel, capturing culture?
Charlie White: What I would say is, I don't know if this project, very similar to Casting Call, a very different project, could manifest as well anywhere else in America. I think that the teen culture here identifies their type early, reinforces that type through fashion and presentation of self and works within it. Part of the relationship that they have, and this is from other work and studies I've done, they are very close to that identity that is exported.
If you look at something like Roxy, as an example, a young woman that I studied for a photo project from 16 to 18 named Cyrilla Strothers, she identified herself through brands and her persona reflected these ideas. "I'm a Roxy girl," [she'd say.] I think that exemplifies how someone could both somewhat naturally have a vernacular from where they are but also be aware of it and work on it.
I think that Georgia is a perfect example of "I am a popular girl. I am pretty because people say so." And I liked her a lot. There's no comedy, there's no jab at Georgia. Georgia was the teenager who came into the studio, we weren't asking her to be that. These were her stories and this was how she presented herself. And I don't know know how many of these young women will remain that person and that persona after they leave home and after they go to college and after their life kind of expands in totally different ways. But at this time it's so completely pure. It's their total self.
Brian Hollon: They have the option to do that in Southern California, sadly. If they want to stick to that persona they can. But like you said, it wouldn't work anywhere else in the country. If you're in Cincinnati, Ohio, when you're 23 years old you don't really have that option.
Charlie White: You don't have that option. And that is not gender, as we know. It's not gender. I mean you can stay a boy in Southern California well into your 30's.
Drew Tewksbury: I'm also interested in this generation of kids that you're profiling because so many of them are part of the Facebook age but also the late 90's voyeurism of "Real World" and the reality show aftermath. They learn to talk from these shows. They know how to tell their stories like reality shows. There's always that part in a reality show where someone is talking to a camera and telling their story. So, I was wondering how that inferfaces with what you see in your studies, that people can construct sound bite narratives?
Charlie White: We tried to find girls who didn't do it with a sense of self awareness in their voice, in the same way that if a camera was on you, you either stand or you pose. So, in their voice they had to be standing not posing.
Brian Hollon: You could tell the girls who were listening to themselves and that's such a bad quality. It's one that you don't want, hearing every word that they're saying
Charlie White: There are magical things that happen in a [sound recording] booth. They wanted to talk about these subjects.
Brian Hollon: Absolutely.
Drew Tewksbury: It's the confessional booth.
Charlie White: Yeah. Simple questions. "You mentioned, boys. Can I ask you, just tell me about boys." And that would be a question, not, "Tell me about something specifically" or "Tell me about dating" or "Tell me if you have a boyfriend." All of that approach causes a defensiveness and it is not really fair to the person that you're talking to, where "tell me about boys," in and of themself, is fair. [One girl] who was 12 years old said, "I don't like boys... yet."
Drew Tewksbury: It's a thing on the horizon sooner or later...
Brian Hollon: She knows she's suppose to.
Charlie White: Right. And that's something that a lot of the things that she spoke about were about fears and concerns about the future because she see's what being a teenager is and what happens to teenagers around her. She's aware of that. So, she speaks to that in the track.
Brian Hollon: And you know, when you listen to these girls you have to realize they're talking about these subjects, I think for the first time. Other than a guidance counselor, which is someone who is obviously going to give direction to them and be "Well you know, you shouldn't do that," and they're going to hold things back because they know that this is an authoritative figure that's suppose to give them the plan for life. Charlie and I were two adults who were just listening. And these girls, we just allowed them to talk. A lot of times it would be an hour and a half into it, when it really started going because they realize "This is who I am. This is what I'm doing." They're dreaming and talking about themselves and they just don't have the opportunity to really do that with anyone else.