NEW ORLEANS, LA – I got a chance to see experimental powerhouse HILDEGARD perform live at a venue with LA’s KNOWER and ADAM & KIZZIE and was absolutely floored with their performance. I got to talk with Cliff Hines and Sasha Masakowski; and they discussed with me their shift from being an alternative jazz band to what they are now, their philosophies of being a band, and what HILDEGARD really means.
If Hildegard was a person? What would he/she be like, wearing, or expect from him/her?
Cliff: Weird. Really weird person.
Sasha: I think she would embody qualities of femininity and masculinity. She would be androgynous, beautiful, exotic and mysterious.
Cliff: And definitely someone you don’t ____ with. She would wear all black with a bunch of sequins.
So it’s pretty much Grace Jones?
Cliff: That’s a really good description! Grace is beautiful and fierce and all of that.
Who makes up Hildegard?
Cliff: Me and Sasha have been playing for a long time together. Maybe about six years. This band has been formed about a year ago. We’ve come together the summer of 2013 and the core at that time (and now) includes Max Moran on bass, G Maxwell on drums (all of those you saw in OKC with us) and we also have John Maestas on guitar.
Where did you get your name?
Cliff: We went on a really long train on what band name to find and we ended up coming back to ‘Hildegard.’ It resonated with us. It’s Sasha’s middle name and it was her grandmother’s name, but also there’s a heavy history behind the name.
The name in German means ‘battle maiden.’ We were talking about this whole androgynous, femininity means masculinity; so ‘battle maiden’ evokes that. But Hildegard had more attack than naming it “Battle Maiden.” Hildegard is also the name of the first female composer back in the middle ages, Hildegard von Bignen. When she wrote songs she would pretend that she was having visions from God, because otherwise (in a male dominated, patriarchy of religion) her songs wouldn’t have been recognized. She was a very powerful figure in the history of feminism.
With everyone being their own solo artist, how did you all come together?
Cliff: Originally we were touring as the Cliff Hines Quintet, which was my solo project which was my alternative jazz thing. And Sasha’s been there since the beginning. Then we started adding some of Sasha’s songs into the repertoire and that really changed the vibe that we were going for. Then I started writing different songs and then she did. I pretty much retired the Quintet because I wasn’t making music like that anymore, thus Cliff & Sasha was born; which then morphed into Hildegard.
Originally everyone started out as sidemen in my band, but once Sasha started bringing in songs she started adding her presence to the music. It then kinda stopped being a leader/sidemen dynamic, it became a band. Everyone is a leader and everyone has an opinion and can bring something to the table.
Was that a smooth process of going from the dynamics of Cliff Hines band to Hildegard?
Cliff: No it was not a smooth process.
Sasha: It’s always hard when you have a band full of influential artist. Everyone has to learn how to give up a little bit of control and be willing to compromise artistically. I think we’re all growing and learning how to write and collaborate more.
Cliff: I think this is what makes our band so strong. Every member comes from a different background. We’re all around the same intersection but everyone brings something to the table. It’s as simple as dictatorship vs democracy. The democracy approach with the band, getting their input and their approval, takes longer but you’ll get a well-rounded product.
Sasha, is it odd or easy for you to be the only female traveling with a band?
Sasha: It’s easy. These guys are like my family and my brothers. They’ve got my back no matter what, and I feel like I’m traveling with my best friends. The only thing that’s hard is when everyone wants to go to Waffle House and I’m the only one that objects to that. I don’t really have any problems with that.
Cliff: Let’s put on the record that Louis Cole is responsible for the 3AM Waffle House trip in Texas. That was no one in Hildegard’s fault. We will take responsibility for taking her to Taco Cabana at several occasions.
What have you learned from touring, especially this last tour with Knower?
Sasha: I learned a lot from Knower, in that they do so much as a duo. They embody so much sonically and visually. It’s inspiring to see their relationship and how much they’re supportive of each other.
Cliff: They definitely inspired and rejuvenated us. They were really great to tour with.
I don’t know if it’s just this tour, but touring in general; You’re playing the same songs in front of different audience every night teaches you what people react to. What things that are or not working. Touring really helps you applying a set, because you have a different audience every night. What do people like in Chicago? California? Florida? We’re in the entertainment industry so we have to think, what is it that speaks to people? Touring really helps you learn what people are into.
Tell me more about your single “A to Z.”
Sasha: The video is a quirky love/murder story about a fan girl that kidnaps Cliff. He wakes up unexpectantly then accidentally kills him with a framed picture of him. This sounds really dark but it’s really not.
What prompted you to write that? What did you want to communicate?
Sasha: It’s sort of an obsessive love song. Wanting something so bad… It’s seductive and playful.
Cliff: Its a really cool song. It’s something that you can have fun with. All of my songs that I’ve put in the band is really dark/heavy musically, but this song shows that we’re fun too. We show as a band that we aren’t afraid to go anywhere musically, light or dark.
What are some things that you can already tell me about your CD coming out?
Cliff: I would want to say “expect the unexpected.” You don’t know what we’re going to do. The album has a lot of surprises and WTF moments, and that’s what we’re all about. The element of surprise is really important in our music.
Sasha: I think this record shows good compositions. We spent a lot of time detailing these little minor things, layers, and textures. You’ll expect really well crafted songs.
What’s some advice you would give to artist/musicians who want to do what you’re doing?
Cliff: You have to love it. You can’t do it for money. If you do it because you love it, hopefully you’ll get it money but it’s not the goal. If money is the goal, then you should pursue a more linear line of work. We’re planting seeds all the time and we never know what will grow out of it. We really have to be open to where it’s going to take you. There’s no straight ladder to success. We’re just sprinkling little seeds to see what grows from it.
Sasha: Be persistent. It’s not always easy. Highs are highs and feels like you’re floating, but when it’s low it’s really scary because you don’t have anyone telling you what to do. You have to create your own reality. Like Cliff said, you have to love it. You have to treat it like a business. You are your own business owner. I don’t remember who said it but someone said “You are your own currency.” The more time you spend crafting and owning your sound, voice, compositions, that becomes your currency.