Although the themes explored in the art of Joseph Keckler parallel the rich, free-ranging diversity of the mediums he operates within—music, acting, storytelling, writing, painting, performance art—his breakthrough creation is concerned with a particular topic: tripping balls. “Shroom Aria,” Keckler’s hilariously weird, operatic account of an experience with psychedelic mushrooms, portrayed in a suitably surreal animated video by Liam Lynch, gained him web-wide recognition in 2013. Declared Best Downtown Performance Artist by the Village Voice and further exalted by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications, the Kalamazoo, Michigan-born, classically trained bass-baritone singer recently authored a book, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World; taped an NPR “Tiny Desk Concert” that debuted last month; and has appeared at Lincoln Center, Paris’s Pompidou Center, and other celebrated venues. On July 24 at 8pm, Joseph Keckler will perform at the Ancram Opera House in Ancramdale. Tickets are $35, with reservations required. Keckler answered the questions below by email.
It was the blues that initially attracted you to singing—in particular, the blues of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose “I Put a Spell on You” you still perform today. What was it about Hawkins and the blues that spoke to you as a junior high schooler in southwest Michigan?
“I Put a Spell on You” is overdone, yet it really is one of the best songs. Menacing, seductive, and unhinged, it is about desperately resorting to magical thinking, or to magic itself. That’s a matter of perspective. What did I like about Screamin’ Jay? I just responded to his style. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t analyze this much at age 11. To analyze now, though, it was probably his marriage of the sublime and the ridiculous. He’s a god disguised as a novelty act: funny and serious, with an edge. His recording of “Spell” was banned on the radio because of the “cannibalistic” sounds he made. This was a deeply racist censorship. Still, he was a provocateur. In the case of blues in general, I imagine I was responding to the direct narration of daily life; the revelation, the transformation of daily life. I’m sure it was influential: however different, my work has turned out also to be half story and half music, and all about locating dramatic undercurrents in daily life.
Not long after you’d immersed yourself in the blues, you became interested in opera, which is certainly uncommon for a Midwestern kid of your generation. What was it that drew you to opera and made you want to become an opera singer at such a young age? Which composers, singers, and operas first grabbed you, and what made them so compelling?
I actually wasn’t sure what I wanted to become—or I sensed I wanted to become something complicated—mission accomplished, maybe? I went on to study visual art, yet I trained vocally at the same time. My voice, more than I, seemed to want to sing operatically, so it led me in that direction, like a leashed creature. The first operatic recording I possessed and responded to was Jessye Norman’s recording of Dido & Aeneas by Purcell. I was introduced to classical singing by a voice teacher. I was intrigued by this whole elevated plane of drama upon which opera played; the purity of tone; also by the mysterious discipline within the form and the connoisseurship that surrounded it.
In 2019 you toured with indie rock icons Sleater-Kinney, playing in large halls and clubs across the US. What was that like? Had you appeared on many rock bills prior? How was your cabaret-like set received by Sleater-Kinney’s audiences, and how did the experience affect you as a performer?
Yes, I’ve shared bills with rock acts in more underground settings numerous times, but I absolutely loved touring with Sleater-Kinney. I was shown immense love by the group and their audience. [Band members] Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker had written [the song] “The Future is Here” after seeing me play in Los Angeles. The shows themselves were exhilarating. I liked it all—the energy, context, schedule, and scale. Other than making me regret all the less-fun things I’d put energy into in the past, the experience presented no negatives. I also slept better on that tour bus than I ever have—was it the coffin-like pod that so comforted me? The constant motion? Lack of oxygen?
Like most artists, you were unable to perform to live audiences for the past year, due to the pandemic. What did you do during the downtime? How has COVID shaped your art?
At the end of the pandemic, I put together an NPR Tiny Desk concert with some of my favorite collaborators, and it just came out. Before that, I wrote and published four essays, wrote a few songs, another TV script, a film script, did vocal exercises and—to brag further—drank no alcohol for a year. I was very happy being utterly alone for nine months, but after that I felt bad and went insane.
You gave a well-received performance at the Ancram Opera House in 2016. What should people expect when they attend your show (rescheduled from 2020) there this month?
Now that I’m insane, who knows? But I’m trying to vary the set from last time and share some work I haven’t played up there before and even a little material I wrote during the pandemic.