Art Talk: How Co-Founding The Forge Helped Anna Isachenko Find Her Own Creative Identity

                                                                                                                                                                   Photo by Alex Mayo

                                                                                                                                                                  Photo by Alex Mayo

Anna Isachenko’s life is made up of dichotomies. Soviet roots and American capitalism. Years of classical voice training and a love of alternative music. The practical business world and ephemeral artistic realm. Anna’s ability to seamlessly navigate these domains for the past 26 years is what makes it possible for her to simultaneously be the co-founder/den mother of The Forge and songwriter/frontwoman for Detroit indie-pop band, Soviet Girls – and be damn good at both.

Music was ingrained in Anna’s life from an early age. Born in Moscow, Russia, Anna and her twin sister, Sima, were often recruited to sing traditional Russian folk songs at family parties, or anywhere entertainment was needed. Raised in a single-parent home, Anna says her mother made music education a priority, even when there were times when they barely had enough to put food on the table. Her dream was for her daughters to be opera singers, but the girls weren’t exactly on board. “We weren’t good,” says Anna. “We didn’t have vibrato or opera voices, but at the same time, we learned a lot of great skill like voice control and other stuff.”

Despite their self-proclaimed shortcomings, the girls conceded and spent years training with the most prestigious instructors. When she was ten, Anna and her family moved from Russia to New Jersey, where she was introduced to a whole new world, musically and otherwise. Though the classical training continued, Anna began to develop different tastes in music. She credits the Springfield, Missouri band, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – named after the first post-Soviet Union president – as the gateway to her love of alternative indie pop. From middle school on, Anna ditched Russian folk songs for The Kooks covers or writing original songs.

Although Anna knew she wanted a future in music, she didn’t think it was possible until she started playing with other musicians.

“I didn’t feel like I was good enough to be a musician or an artist until I met other musicians and saw that it’s do-able and there’s no clear path,” says Anna. “There are different ways to get there and you don’t have to follow a formula. Realizing that really helped me and allowed me to open up and become who I want to be.”

After playing in an alt-rock duo, Anna & Robbie, her senior year of high school, Anna started college with a newfound confidence for writing and playing music with others. She formed a band with a friend and fellow Russian musician, Katya Anderson, appropriately named Soviet Babies. The girls played folk-pop covers and wrote their own songs, planting the seeds for Anna’s musical future.

When Anna graduated from Ithaca College, she found herself trying to fit a mold of what other people wanted from her. Between singing with a big band hoping to make her mom proud and writing pop songs that she thought would be commercially viable, Anna realized that she was doing everything but what she really wanted. Taking a break from music, she moved to Detroit in 2015 to begin the Venture for America program. Although she wasn’t completely sold on the work she was doing, she fell in love with the city’s raw creative environment and unrelenting energy.

While in Detroit, Anna learned her mom had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. The devastating news left her torn, traveling back and forth between New Jersey and Detroit for months. When she was in New Jersey, she reconnected with old friends Rob Hlavaty and Jonathan Rodriguez and formed an alternative soul project that she performed and wrote songs with when she wasn't taking care of her mom. The band not only served as a creative outlet for Anna during this incredibly tumultuous time, but also as a way for her to connect with and comfort her mother in her final days. 

Anna recounts playing some of the band's new songs for her mom while she was on bedrest and the joy that it brought both of them. "We literally played some of these songs for my mom on her deathbed, when she was no longer responsive, and then at the celebration party in honor of her when she passed," explains Anna. 

In the wake of complete devastation, Anna was conflicted about whether to go back to New Jersey and be with family or fight through and continue to make a life in Detroit. She decided that her mom would've wanted her to follow the path she set out on and not give up, so that's what she did.  Even in her state of extreme grief, Anna continued to create. She finished and released a recording project with her teacher and friend, Ken Zampella, including four jazz standards and one original composition.

Staying active in  music gave Anna a way to cope with loss while also allowing her to immerse herself in Detroit’s lush creative community, where she noticed a lack of nurturing spaces for emerging artists, especially musicians. Thus, The Forge was born.

“The Forge was and is something that connects a lot of who I am into one,” says Anna. “It fills my love for entrepreneurship and building something while creating an environment for artists and musicians that empowers them to create and feel like they can realize their potential.”

Starting The Forge didn’t only allow Anna to support other artists, but also helped her find her own creative voice. The time she spent living in and renovating the space served as an intense healing and creative period where she was able to write songs the way she wanted to, not caring what anyone else thought of them. “I think that apathy comes from a strong place of knowing I like it, and I don’t care if someone else doesn’t because it’s not going to change my opinion of the song.”

With her new “f*ck it” outlook guiding the way, Anna felt comfortable sharing her songs with her friends Devin Poisson and Jonathan Franco, both talented musicians in their own right. This resulted in many a late night, Sutter Home-fueled jam sessions that eventually led to forming the three-piece indie-pop outfit, Soviet Girls. Now, after years of experimenting, Anna feels like she’s finally making music that represents who she really is. “The most important thing is that you like what you create, and the rest will fall into place,” says Anna.

Anna hopes that The Forge will provide the same kind of encouraging, breakthrough experience for residents. She explains that although The Forge provides a nurturing space for creating, it’s just as much about the people. “I would love to see The Forge live on through the artists who stay there,” says Anna. If Anna’s footprint is any indication of what’s to come, The Forge has a bright, shiny future ahead.

You can follow Anna’s band, Soviet Girls, on Instagram at @sovietgirlsdet or Facebook.

Detroit punk rockers, Hail Alien, release killer EP, 'How To Be Happy'

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Hail Alien started as most punk bands do, in a basement with three guys, a guitar, a bass, drums, and some good old fashion teenage-early twenties rage. Spencer Rogers (lead vocals and guitar), Matt "Mini' Maniaci (drums) and Rex Curtis (bass) had all known each other for years, but it wasn’t until a fateful summer day in 2012, stemming from boredom and the realization that they all played instruments, that Hail Alien was born.

Inspired by godfathers of punk like the Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and Blink 182, Hail Alien began as a way to channel emotion, congregate in small spaces to mosh, and just, well, have fun. However, it took a while for them to grow into the perfectly unpolished sound they have now. 

The group admits their first tries at writing left much to be desired. “We wrote the shittiest song,” says Matt. 

“Yeah it was really bad,” adds Rex.

“DUCT TAPE!” adds Spencer. 

The three finish each other’s sentences with the humor and ease that comes with being friends and playing together for years. Even close to six years after its formation, the band still has just as much fun playing their music.

“The thing about playing the type of music we do, shitty punk, is it’s just really fun to do,” says Rex. 

However, there’s more to the band’s music than moshing and learnable guitar-licks. Although Spencer claims the songs are more music-focused and that the lyrics “don’t mean anything,” the other band members have other opinions. 

“I think he thinks the lyrics are ‘whatever,’ but if you listen to what he puts together, the lyrics are amazing and they definitely have meaning that would strike many people,” Matt says. 

“They come from a very deep and emotional place, which he might not want to acknowledge,” Rex adds. 

“I have emotions, I just don’t like them,” says Spencer.

While some people cling to Hail Alien’s relatable lyrics and effortless head-banging beats, the band realizes a lot of people where they grew up — the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills — don’t like the fact that they deviate from the norm. And they don’t give a damn. So. Punk. Rock.

“The fact that we play punk music is kind of like a middle finger to where we grew up because nobody likes it,” says Rex. 

“It was hard growing up like that, being an alternative kid in a preppy area,” Matt adds. 

“That was one of the things that attracted me to what they were playing in the first place. It was something that no one else I knew would have appreciated, even in my friend group,” says Rex.

The band has definitely experienced the cons being part of a small subculture in Detroit. It’s been a struggle for them to find a solid group of people who are truly punk rock. "There’s been a shift in music taste and our music taste just happens to be a little old-fashioned for the generation now,” says Rex. 

That said, the band’s not really concerned about people liking their music or not, “It’s almost like the more people don’t like us, the more punk rock we are,” Matt explains. They’re more concerned with making music that moves them, and maybe a few other head bobbers out there. “The whole point is to affect people.” 

The band’s latest EP, How To Be Happy, is bound to do just that. The culmination of months of writing and years of playing together, HTBH is the quintessential angsty punk album that the world needs right now. Complete with grungy guitar riffs, polished baselines and thrashing drums, the EP takes listeners back to the good ‘ol days of crowd surfing, moshing and underage drinking — just the right amount of nostalgia. The punk pariahs will be celebrating their EP release with a show at The Forge on November 4th, following the digital release on November 1st at 12pm EST. Be sure to download the EP so you can come to the show ready to bang your head and sing along.  

Forge Resident, Vannessa Circe, Leaves Her Mark on Detroit's Artist Village

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For five years, Vannessa Circe has been traveling the world with her art. Starting on a motorcycle in in Columbia at age 17 and landing in Detroit a few months ago, Circe has made it a point to fully immerse herself in the cultural and artistic environments of the places she visits. Our current resident, Sara Marie Barron, sat down with Circe to get her full story and talk about the mural she started and finished in one week in Detroit's Artist Village. That story made it into the Detroit Metro Times. Read it here.

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Art Talk: A Q&A With Former Forge Artist in Residence, Romelle

As part of our new series, Art Talk, current Forge Artist in Residence, Sara Marie Barron, sat down with one of The Forge's first resident artists, Romelle, to chat about painting, music and the magical combination of the two. Enjoy! 

Sara Marie: To start off, can you tell me about your background as an artist? What was your first love, what are you spending most of your time doing now?

Romelle: I have been making art for as long as I can remember, but it’s always taken different forms. When I was really young I thought I wanted to be a clothing designer, so I was always sketching fashion models and styling my little sisters for self-funded photo shoots - thanks, guys. But my first love of art was probably in the form of music. I remember dancing with my family in our living room before I could talk, being completely lost in what I was hearing. Luckily my parents have really solid music taste so I turned out okay - Bowie, Talking Heads, Duran Duran, to name a few - but music was something that definitely grabbed me right from the start.

As far as visual art goes, I was really impacted by graffiti and the process of tagging as an art form. I had always been drawing and painting, but when I saw graffiti in Detroit, it changed my mind about what I wanted to do. I was around 12 or 13 and I wasn't sure of what I wanted to do exactly, but I was so massively in love with what I saw that it took over. Everything I have painted since then has stemmed from the influence of seeing tags on Detroit’s outdoor walls Now, I spend most of my time between both painting and making music. Right now, with painting, I am really enjoying collaborating with friends and other artists around me. I have a lot of fun bringing my work out of the studio a little more and working with people that might think in a different way than me visually. As far as music goes, I am in the middle of writing an EP with my band from Colorado. We will be recording soon at Assemble Sound here in Detroit. Stoked!

When did you decide to pursue your art full time? Or was there never really another option for you?

That’s a good question. Up until about a year ago, I feel like I was still toying with the idea of getting a “real-job”, something with a salary and finding something that could maybe help fund my art projects in a more sustainable way. But I soon realized that anything with a real 9-5 schedule would inherently take me away from making artwork to the degree that I wanted to be.

From then on, I knew the focus for me had to be making art full time. Even when I was coaching swimming or working at a restaurant, I would come back to the studio and find a way to paint and produce music full-time, too. Working towards my own vision of what I want to create is what is really important to me and that’s when I stay motivated.

Can you tell me a bit about one of your more recent pieces -- what inspired it, what was the creative process like?

 I had this crazy dream the night before I painted it, but all I could remember when I woke up was that it involved finding this certain shade of light blue. So I went straight to the studio trying to replicate what I saw in the dream. The creative process itself involves lots of layering and waiting for paint to dry. That remained true for this piece too.

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In general, do you have a creative process you stick to when making art, or does it vary from piece to piece?

In general, the process stays pretty much the same. I will often just start painting and make it up as I go. Other times, I will be really into a certain color scheme and want to make a piece around that, or even just one particular color. But yeah, most of the time my process stays the same as far as working on canvas goes, finding balance within the constraints of the frame.

You're a visual artist as well as a musician -- do you find that these two art forms compliment each other/bleed into each other in some ways?

Definitely. I feel like art and music bleed into one another for sure. But for me, I can also use one form to kind of escape from the other. Using both as forms of expression can be really nice to help me feel refreshed, and I can come back to each with a new set of eyes.

I have also always loved album covers and band t-shirts as art forms, and that's a perfect combination of music with visual. One of my favorites in that regard is Peter Saville and the work he did for New Order and Joy Division during his time at Factory Records. His translation from music to visual is so seamless, and it never fails to impress me. It’s also a good reminder that while art and music can live in separate worlds, really good things can happen when they are combined in a conscious way.

Who are some artists -- living or dead -- that inspire you the most?

Art: REVOK, RETNA, POSE, HENSE, the whole MSK crew… José Parlá, Elian Chali, there are really too many good ones to name!

Music: Debbie Harry, Henry Rollins, and Jessica Hernandez from Detroit as of late.

What was your time like living at the Forge and in Detroit? What did you learn/take away from this experience?

I feel so incredibly grateful to have been included in The Forge, especially in the first crew living at the house. Something that was really reinforced with this whole experience is that taking risks is always rewarding. In this case, we all weren’t really sure what would happen with The Forge and how long it would take to get the house ready for shows & other resident artists, but it was something we all had a passion for, which was the most important part. When I moved into the house, literally day one, I was encouraged to paint the walls from top to bottom and just go crazy in making the house feel like a truly creative space in any way I wanted. I would constantly be asking The Forge (Anna & Caroline) what they thought about hosting a jam session the next weekend, or “what about a punk basement show on Friday?” and next thing I know there's forty people moshing in my basement. I feel really thankful for the liberty that I had to execute my own ideas, as wild as they were.

The amazing thing about The Forge is that they are incredibly open to new ideas and that has really influenced me as I pushed my own artistic boundaries while I was working there. I feel like this place is truly a testament to the idea that your environment affects your creative output because I felt so artistically motivated having a studio there. Being around other creative people on a mission is the fuckin' best.

What’s next for you artistically? What are you most looking forward to in art and in life?

Whatever I am creating artistically always comes from where I’m at personally. To me, it’s one in the same, and in order for me to make art or music honestly, I have to be real with myself and check in with what makes me happiest as a person first.

I just returned to Detroit after spending a month all across Thailand, and that really opened my mind to what’s next for me. Before I went on the trip, I knew I loved to travel, but this was really a testament to my nomadic tendencies and what makes me feel the most alive as a human. I would love to find a way to travel more often and continue to make art and music while doing so. I think that’s what I am looking forward to most in life as well -- figuring out creative ways to keep doing what I love with the people I love, and seeing the world along the way.