ra / sol performed a concert for cows

an interview with the musician + journalist about their work

Today in The Molly Zone, an interview with musician and journalist ra / sol!

Photo credit: @brittrose._ on IG

I first came across ra / sol’s work when I was doing my usual scroll on Twitter and came across a prompt from music theory professor Robert Komaniecki:

One of the responses was a stunning photo that caught my eye — a concert for cows!

As it turns out, performing music for cows — which was not only an exploration of the sentience of animals amid their treatment in our food systems, but a personal musical performance breakthrough — is honestly just a small portion of what ra / sol gets up to. They DJ, produce ambient electronic music, contribute to the media collective Afros In Tha City, and host a monthly radio show about the history and culture of dance music. We talked about all of this fascinating work, plus the distinction between “scene vs. community,” the inspirational nature of free audio editing software, being an observer and a performer simultaneously…ah, it was a great conversation so let’s get to it…

This interview? Yeah, it’s been condensed for length + clarity.

MO: So obviously I found your work from your post about playing music for cows, via that tweet prompting people to share music moments that were memorable in people's lives. When I saw that photo, I was just like, oh my god…I'm from Vermont, I love a cow moment. I figured we could start with how that performance came to be, and then get more into your musical history?

r / s: For a long time, I’ve had an interest in this phenomenon of cows and how they respond to music. There’s actually a lot of research that's gone into it, from Japan and other places, mostly related to the quality of meat and milk — that the general stress levels of cows contribute to the quality of those products, and that stress actually does seem to be alleviated by cows experiencing music that they like.

I have some friends in on the west coast of Vancouver that run this experimental ambient festival called active/passive. During the pandemic, they were asking for proposals for performances that might end up being put online. So I made a proposal, that I'd love to find some cows and record a little concert for them. It didn't end up being part of the festival because things opened up a little bit, and there ended up being a live event. But I have all of this footage and audio from this day.

To give you a bit of background of what I do — I've been a musician my whole life, but I don't really have any classical or formal education in that realm. I've been really involved in electronic music and DJing and the rave scene. I actually am a journalist by trade. I work for a publication that is predominantly for Black people and allies — I'm mixed — and I’ve become really interested in this idea that the most unsanctioned and freest form of media was the hip-hop mixtape, which comes from a journalist that I’ve followed named Jared Ball — he works with this idea called “emancipatory journalism.” I've also been really interested in music therapy and the ways that intentional sound and frequency affect cells.

I’ve been trying to go back to school for a while, but I am autistic and I've been pretty severely burnt out, so I've just been doing more self-directed studies. It’s been this interesting experience of all of these special interests converging together into this project. I didn’t expect there to be that much response or interest in it. Now I’m trying to figure out how I can push this forward and make it a socially- and politically-driven project. There are a lot of conversations to be had about the sentience of animals, the different ways that we connect with each other as humans, and how animals are treated when the meat and dairy industries are at the center of capitalism.

MO: This is all so interesting!! I’m trying to synthesize the mixtape concept with the way I found out about your project, which was on Twitter…how the mediums we use to consume information are so important to how that information is conveyed…

Right. It’s a weird time right now. You’ve got Elon Musk, and everyone was like, Oh my God, Twitter's going to go down.

Oh, yeah.

But obviously it didn't go down, because the value of this thing as a public utility. So many people have used Twitter as a main source of information, and have put themselves into positions of being mass communicators in a way that was only previously relegated to journalists and scientists and researchers. Now everyone can put themselves in that position to share information. That's definitely something I'm thinking about a lot, is how can I open up a larger conversation that goes beyond just sharing music with cows, you know?

So you’re still figuring out what you could do with the footage of the performance?

Yeah. Because it was supposed to be part of this festival, they had grant funding, so I ended up getting a bit of an honorarium to go — we went to Galiano Island, one of the gulf islands of Canada — and do it all. I have all this raw footage and audio that I'm hoping to make into a little trailer. And I'm hoping to get a Creative Capital grant. I don't know if you're familiar with that.

I am not, please tell me more.

To my understanding, Creative Capital is an extension of the Andy Warhol Foundation. One of the first presidents of that foundation had this ethos that you can't really have democracy if the arts are not being funded from a democratic level. So every two years they have a theme, and they do two different streams of grants. This year it's for film and visual arts and the theme is “Wild Futures.” After I had made that post on Twitter, my friend was like, Hey, you should look into this. And if you look on their website, the theme image is actually a bull.


I don’t know, it seems like it’s meant to be, so I’m working on that now.

That's awesome. So will you tell me about how you got into electronic music in particular?

I was actually a rhythmic gymnast growing up. The basis of rhythmic gymnastics is the music, moving very tiny muscles to the different sounds, conveying different emotions through the music. And when you hit certain competitive levels of rhythmic gymnastics, you have to start doing everything for yourself. The music that you have for your routines has to be a certain length. Usually you'll have like a beep or some kind of sound at the beginning so you start right on the beat, because if you don't, you're going to lose points.

So I learned how to produce music through that. I was 14 or 15 and I got the program Audacity, and then FruityLoops, which is basically a barebones, skeleton version of FL Studio, and GarageBand. I got a little taste of what making music was like through editing music. And I was going through university for journalism and I started dating a DJ, and became interested in the history of rave music and the culture behind it.

That's awesome. God, GarageBand is really a common thread in so many people’s stories. I guess because it seemed so accessible.

I think it was free for a long time. I don't know if it is anymore, but I remember it being on a computer I was using and I was like, oh, this is cool. Actually, I should tell you this — with the cow project, it also was this opportunity that I carved out for myself as I’ve been getting into more of a live music realm. I'm still super interested in rave culture, but lately, there’s a lot of not-good energy around [that scene]. I find there's a lot of weird parallels between the AI art thing that's happening and DJing becoming this popular thing that everyone wants to do.

I've been a guitarist for pretty much my whole life, and I've always wanted to be a songwriter and produce my own songs. So I’ve been focusing more on that, and I realized that I had some kind of blockage that was preventing me from singing in front of people without getting super choked up, and even almost starting to cry. I worked through that, but I still was nervous about performing in front of people. So I was like, well, this cow audience is not going to judge me! It was one of the first times I’ve actually performed like that. It was a weird sort of breakthrough moment for me.

That's so cool. So least from doing this project at that festival, it seems like there’s a local music and art scene in general that you're part of. How would you describe what the scene is like?

Oh, man, it's funny you bring that up. I’ve been in this really weird place for the last while where as far as the scene goes, I've been super ostracized. I'm sure lots of autistic and neurodivergent people experience this in all kinds of scenes. In Canada, and Western Canada specifically — and maybe it's just a West Coast thing in general — there’s a lot of insular cliquiness that happens. Which, that’s probably the nature of being an artist in an increasingly hyper-capitalistic society, right?

For me, I've just been trying to find like-minded people who are genuinely making art from their hearts, and genuinely wanting to connect with others and express themselves and build a better world. I feel like we’re at this fork in the road right now: you can try to forget that everything's kind of messed up, or you can put your energy and your passions into making things better. I've really been thinking a lot about “community” versus “scene.”


I think that they get conflated a lot, and they get confused a lot. People are often looking for a community, and they're looking for acceptance, and to be a part of something bigger than themselves, but what they actually find is more ego-based, you know?


We live in this very strange time where we're between all of these augmented realities — maybe not so much on Twitter, but Instagram, definitely — where the whole point is to be seen and to create this idealized version of yourself that you can constantly be performing for attention and validation. So now it’s, I think, obvious who is doing art for the sake of doing art and who's doing art for the sake of clout and whatnot.


And being autistic, that's also really difficult to wrap my head around. I find it very confusing. I've just been trying to make deeper bonds on an individual level with people, and with other artists, and have these kinds of conversations with people and collaborate. Right now I’m collaborating with an illustrator who is really incredible — all of their work is very much based on the connection they have to animals. It's going to be cool to have that artistic visual element along with the music and video footage.

It's funny that you were talking about Instagram, because I also feel like with Instagram, and now with the AI of it all, that some people create things and only focus on numbers and how to juice the statistics — which have been proven to be faked time and time again. Facebook lied about how many people watched videos and I'm sure Tik Tok is doing it now. And so I feel like there’s so much more value in focusing on quality relationships, rather than chasing the capitalist growth where numbers need to go up exponentially.

I know you said you live in New York, and I cannot begin to imagine the weirdness of being an artist in New York — in Vancouver, I think the population is, like, 2 million, but there’s tons of space here. It’s a massive, massive country. I find that makes things really weird. I almost look at it like cities that are trying to be big cities, but they're a lot more akin to small towns. And it creates a lot of weird attitudes, for sure. With these smaller cities, there are gatekeepers everywhere that have been doing the same thing for like 15 years, creating these personas for themselves, and it happens in such a way that you can't get away from it.

I’ve seen versions of that happening in New York. I'm not a musician, but I’m a music fan who writes about music and makes videos about music. There was a certain pocket of a scene that I was really trying to vibe with. And then I realized, Oh, this is so much further ingrained than I thought. There’s no room for new people or people that they don't know.

I have had so many flashbacks to being in the eighth grade with some popular clique, like, oh, what can I do to be liked by them?

Totally. Then once you get a taste of the real thing, it’s like, okay, I don’t need to chase this anymore.

I'm going to just pull up a message my friend sent me the other day: "The scene would have one think that the art necessitates the bullshit culture and we have to participate. But in fact, art happens all the time everywhere with no regard for nonsense."

I saved that, because I thought it was such an eloquent statement. It’s true, right? There's always been art. There has always been a need for art in the most political times. Art has always been a way people receive information, whether through music or poetry, or even what you're doing, I would say, is a form of art — sharing other perspectives.

With your work in journalism, how do you think it interacts with or informs your music?

As far as my intentions behind continuing to DJ, I’m always thinking about how I can connect it to the journalistic side of things. I’ve started a monthly radio show out of Vancouver where I share the history of dance floor culture from the beginning: through the music, through interviews with people, through sharing information and history.

As far as my personal music practice goes…I always want to be the observer. I love to be involved and I love to talk to people, but I also love to just be the fly on the wall that's observing things. When I’m making music, I want to create an experience for whoever is listening to my music that allows them to find that observer in themselves, and find what that means for them.

MO: That’s so interesting, I feel like that's an unusual perspective in music-making. I feel like I talk to some musicians where their goal is to…not, like, suck all the air out of the room, but to be someone where everyone’s attention is focused. And it sounds like this way of being is more like…refracting the attention?

Don't get me wrong, I love performing and I do love the attention of it. But yeah, I want to be kind of like a prism. Maybe it sounds corny, but I think for me, the most significant artists that I really look up to or just enjoy the music or whatever art they make, it's because they've inspired me, in a way, to find that light in myself. I don't know if journalism always does that, but I think good journalism should.

ra / sol is all over the dang internet! Their IG + Twitter, the IG for their radio show Dance Floor Pedagogy, their Soundcloud + Bandcamp. Oh yeah.

In my own Zone, wow, lots of stuff happening. New Ghost and Gutless told me about their bands. I talked about onstage fashion with Late Night. And I interviewed VISUALS as part of my series on NYC bands. Oh and I wrote about live show safety for The Alt - the piece includes interviews with a bunch of concert veterans. More on that maybe next newsletter!