Wanted/Needed/Loved: Sneaks’s Paintbrush

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When I was in kindergarten we had an assignment to paint something as a gift to someone.  I don’t think it was really about that though. It was more just a creative exercise. I ended up painting with only two colors, green and red, on a very normal piece of paper. I didn’t think it was very good, didn’t even really think about what it was supposed to represent. If you saw the painting, you’d probably think it looks just like a blob with a handle.

Even so, I gave the picture to my father, and he really loved it. I went on to make all kinds of other weird drawings and cartoons of people—and both of my parents have kept folders full of my artwork. But this painting had a special meaning to them, and also to me. My dad even framed it and hung it up in the music room along with his collection of French art posters where my painting was the only “unofficial” piece of art.

The music room was in the basement, which was old and musty. When I was little I was afraid to go down there alone, but I’d go down with my father and we’d play music together. I remember he had all of these maracas and different kinds of percussion instruments. He also gave me my first instrument, a classical guitar, and taught me how to play it. And he had a tape machine, an old reel-to-reel, so that anything that would happen could be recorded. Whenever I went down to the music room I always had the feeling something awesome was going to happen. That space was very much a part of our relationship.

When I made my very first recordings, I used GarageBand and really cheap equipment. It was really just about figuring out how to put it all together myself. The drum machine I used was actually my father’s. My dad has moved around a few times, but there’s something about his basements—every time I go I discover new stuff.

I recorded the first Sneaks album in my college dorm room at MICA. Compared with other dorm rooms, this one was especially bad. It was the size of a very small shoebox, and the only window was facing a wall of bricks. At the time I was studying video art, but also making music using whatever tools I had at hand, whether those tools were gear or language.

Some of the songs were about objects, but not always literally. Take “New Taste.” Papercut. Nosebleed. Armrest. Photoframe. The lyrics for this song are composed totally from objects, like these portmanteaus, but the way I’m associating them is sometimes based on how they sound together, or how I phrase them together, not necessarily on what they mean individually or in relationship to each other.

When I was working on my new album, I wanted to be free to explore and create experimentally. But moving from self-releasing to a small label, and then to a larger one, you grow with it but also become more conscious of the people who will hear your songs and what they will hear in them. If you’re not aware of the pressure, it can prevent you from really shining. Even though I felt it, I still tried to follow my own ideas.

Take my song “PBNJ.” PBNJ. A knock on my door. Tomorrow may-be. Today for sure. Does the title refer to making a sandwich out of peanut butter and jelly? Or does it refer to the combined initials of two people? Or is it about something else entirely?

I love visual artists like Haim Steinbach who have the ability to nuance the experience of found objects. They also make me think back to the very first things I made. When you’re a kid no one expects you to know what you’re doing. No one is judging you. The advantage is you can be all in.

When I was in kindergarten I made a painting and I gave it to my dad. When I look at it now, through the eyes of an adult, I can see it doesn’t just look like a blob. It also looks like a suitcase, which by the way is another meaning of the word portmanteau. If I wanted to sound clever I might even tell you that’s definitely what it is, or what I meant it to be. But I know that when I made this painting it was more of a gesture than an accurate, detailed representation. That’s okay. I would see it every time I went into the music room. I would see my dad’s pride in it. And that was enough for me to keep painting…

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Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.

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Using a bass, a drum machine, and vocals, Washington, DC-based artist Sneaks, aka Eva Moolchan, creates groove-inflected, playfully minimalist post-punk music that recalls the very best of bands like ESG, Pylon, and Gang of Four. Her 2015 debut Gymnastics was released by the taste-making DC label Sister Polygon and later reissued with additional tracks by Merge. That album made WBEZ/NPR Sound Opinions’ Best Albums of 2016. Sneaks’s latest album It’s a Myth has just been released on Merge. It was recorded with Jonah Takagi and Ex Hex/Helium frontwoman Mary Timony at Timony’s DC studio. “She’s got art in her brain,” Timony has said of Moolchan. “Her brain is making beautiful stuff.”


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. Esme Blegvad is originally from London but is now Brooklyn-based. Her work has also appeared at Rookie and VICE. More from this author →