(Photos above: baby Christine Tupou with Grandma Kaloni, Art Christine made with a picture of her father in high school and tapa designs she drew, Sourpatch record release for “Crushin” 2010, and Christine’s grandmother Mary Jane by the Guadelupe River in San Jose.)
Iaorana tatou ~ As part of this blog, I wanted to start an interview series, interviewing powerful and amazing Pacific women who are inspirations to our community. The lovely and talented Christine Tupou let me interview her for this blog. Christine is an accomplished musician with a lot of influence and followers. She has been playing music for years, through solo and group projects and most notably with the punk band, Sourpatch. She’s travelled around the continental US with her bands and has reached many people with her art. She is of hafekasi Tongan descent. Here, Christine opens up about her life and art:
Name, Place of Birth/Residence: Christine Kaloni Tupou, San Jose, CA
Family Background: My father, Likiana Tupou was born in KIngdom of Tonga in 1957. He immigrated to the US from Vava’u, Tonga in the early 1980’s with his entire immediate family (mom, dad, sister and brothers). At the time there were 10 of them I believe. My dad was in his early twenties. Both his parents, Sete and Kaloni Tupou, are indigenous Tongan and my grandmother told me years ago that my grandfather has Egyptian lineage. They settled in East Palo Alto. Now some of them live in Reno, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. My mom, Cynthia Ann Nolan, was born in San Jose, California in 1955. Her parents were Thomas Nolan who was of Irish decent and came from Montana originally and Mary Jane Pachelli who was a daughter of Italian immigrants and grew up in the neighborhood I live in now in Downtown San Jose. My parents met here in San Jose while working at a small scaffolding company in the late 80’s. My dad’s cousins got him a job there and my mom ran the office. The story that I heard is that they were just dating and then I “showed up to the party” so to speak. What type of art do you create: Music is what I’ve been mostly focused on recently— most specifically music of the “punk” or “indie” variety. I’m currently involved with four projects: Try the Pie, Plume, Crabapple and Salt Flat. I used to be in a band called Sourpatch for about five years and we recently had our last show in early January 2014. I like working in groups and I’m good at collaboration so this form of art is really convenient for me. Songwriting and poetry have become a strength as well as a source of catharsis. At this point in my life, it’s really easy and really enjoyable to make art this way. I make visual art occasionally, I love it. It’s something I really appreciate doing alone. How did you get into this: I occasionally went to shows here in the South Bay when I was younger and that definitely inspired me, or at least planted the seed. Playing queer punk shows here in the Bay mostly happened after high school for me but it definitely got me into playing music more “seriously”. Sourpatch was definitely a formative project for me in that way. I learned a lot about the intersections of identity in art. I realized that you don’t have to institutionalize art to make it legitimate— it can just be your expression and that’s good enough. It wasn’t something I had thought about too much before, but Sourpatch did that for me. I learned how to implement things from my past to make my art and how to really create space. I also learned how to make lasting connections, both nationally and internationally, with folks who played music and were somewhat like-minded. The community I’ve had the privilege to be a part of has helped to mend breaches created by our societies innate ability to marginalize people for being different and I think that’s mostly why I continue to participate in it so fervently.
Poetry was also a big outlet early on in my life, I’ve been writing in journals on and off since the age of 9 or 10. My dad became really into theology when I was around this age, pre-adolescence I guess, and he’d take me with him while he hung out in bookstores or libraries for hours. I was drawn mostly to the poetry sections in these places. Reading comprehension was not my strong suit as a kid and poetry was this accessible kind of literature that I could digest, understand and it gave me the confidence I needed to continue reading. I liked imaginative uses of language and poetry had that too. It didn’t take me long to connect poetry to lyricism in music— became natural for me to analyze songs in the same way I’d read a poem and reflect. Langston Hughes, William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, The Diaries of Sylvia Plath are some writes I remember being really attached to at this age. I feel like the content was beyond me but I identified with the over-all tones a lot of their poetry.
I had close friends in middle school that listened to mildly “alternative” music— kind of entry-level mall punk. It was a start and it got me thinking about different options as far as music. I really loved this band The Weakerthans because their lyrics were kind of literary in this way that I got—I got a Hopeless Records/Subcity comp at Great America one summer and their song “Aside” was on it and the obsession began (haha). From ages 11 to 13, I hung out with group of kids that was comprised of queer folks, poc, woman, and trauma survivors— I think that, in a certain way, the intense perspectives at such a young age really began formative in identifying what we needed culturally and music was a big part of that. I learned how to play guitar, in part, because my friends were into it and were learning too. Also, my dad way always playing so it that particular instrument has always been in my life. . Is your family musical: Definitely. My dad’s side of the family was always very musical. I was naturally inclined and encouraged to sing. My mom’s side really appreciated music but didn’t really play— they listened mostly to country music in all varieties. Soothing melodies have always been in my life. Who are your favorite musicians/who you admire. Why: I absorb music really easily so it’s hard to keep track.
All of my friends and family who are courageous enough to share their music. Some friends I really admire for what they do are (but definitely not limited to): Joyride, Swearin’, Permanent Ruin, Bascom, Shotgun Seamstress, Wizard Apprentice, Bestfriend Grrlfriend, anyone I’ve ever been in a band with, anyone I’ve ever lived with, Black Salt Collective, Jason Clackley, Smash it Dead Fest, Endless Gaycation Fest, Not Enough Fests in NOLA and Portland, Forever, Punkstart My Heart Records, Past Survivor Records, Waxahatchee, Dream Decay, There are seriously so many others. So many haha.
Right now I’m really feeling queer musicians of color coming up in the U.S. rap and dance scene— it’s empowering for me to hear. Some I listened to today are Le1f, Maluca Mala, Zebra Katz, Azealia Banks, Mykki Blanco, Angel Haze. I don’t make that kind of music and don’t know how but I love it and I want more of it. Kate Bush 4ever.
I’m really influenced by U.S. pop, riot grrl, and punk underground from the 90’s, bands who seemed to resist that grunge-craze where big labels were signing folks to make money. Rose Melberg and every project she’s done is a big influence, especially for Sourpatch, I’ve been lucky enough to play with her and listen to stories from when she was touring in bands regularly. Currently looking for more drummers to get obsessed with but Janet Weiss is one of my favorites right now. How did you choose instruments to play: I had guitars around as an adolescent so it was easy to choose. Also I just wanted to be cool— it seemed like the coolest instrument to me at age 12 or 13. How did you choose the audience you want to reach: I think that any audience I’ve been lucky enough to be around has always been comprised of peers. I think when that happens, it makes your art more sustainable because everyone’s in it together, you all support each other. I like it this way. I’m a firm believer in not being too intentional about making art directed at a specific audience only because a.) that would be hard work for someone with so many intersectioning identities and b.) if you make something from experience and your perspective someone will be able to relate it. Do you have themes that you talk about in your art: Depending on the project, the themes vary. With Try the Pie, the themes will always be heritage and deep emotional connection. It’s a solo project so it’s easy for me to deal with vulnerability alone and process it through my music. I feel safe doing that with Try the Pie, safe enough to share it. On the Bandcamp page the description is “floating plastic island” haha. I feel that way sometimes, I feel like being on the borderlands of so many identities has brought me to a lonely, introspective place and it is in Try the Pie where I can release these ideas. Again, art has been imperative in processing identity for me, very important. I think the project’s connection to my particular heritage is the fact that I deal with documenting situations and telling stories through metaphors that have personal meaning. It’s also almost all self taught music and recording (besides the recording i’ve done with friends).
With Sourpatch, it was mostly working through the theme of pain and confusion, at least that’s what I got out of our songs and out of being in the band. It was about reconciling hurt that happens to and around us and constructing something with it— making a life with it. In the other three projects I do: Crabapple, Salt Flat and Plume, the goal is more about how to accompany other song writers. It was a skill I had to learn because I’m so used to writing songs and melodies, it’s like second nature. I implement a lot of intuitive musicianship in those bands and I can thank a lot of my early years for that intuition. It’s unrefined for sure but I’m learning. I also get to work with some really talented song-writers in all of these bands— I’ve learned so much from them.
Are there any connections between your culture/personal life and your art: There is a connection in that everything that happens to me, conscious or unconscious, goes into whatever I make. I wouldn’t be as emotionally adept if I wasn’t able to make things, I feel lucky that way. Art is reflection and processing for me, I grow through it and I can share it and hopefully allow other’s to grow along with me.
I’m all about making space with art and I feel like, again, culturally that’s what Polynesian folks have been doing for centuries— making spaces and community directly based on music or dance or tap making or food. I think it’s ingrained in a lot of us at an early age to create and, if nothing inhibits that, we continue that legacy with or without knowing it.
Fondest musical memory? Earliest musical memory? I have so many! There’s a specific early memory of my Grandma Kaloni teaching me to sing “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and tapping her hand to her leg and me singing along. She is a very animated and lively lady with a really “singsongy” voice event when she talks— so singing just come naturally to all the kids in my family. Some of my cousins have the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard and they don’t even have to try.
Going across the street to my friend Jessica’s house to listen to her cd copy of Crazy, Sexy, Cool when I was like 8 pr 9 and being totally blow away by that record. Taping a local pop radio station that’s no longer around (Z95.7) on my boom box when my favorite songs came on like Selina, Aqua, Spice Girls, Mary J. Blige, etc.
I have many memories of waking up to my dad singing hymns emphatically and playing guitar. When he’s comfortable, he’s got this really interesting “legato” way of singing a melody that is so beautiful. When I was a teenager, I was so embarrassed by how loud and uninhibited he was when he played music but now, that’s the kind of energy I draw from when I think about my past.
There’s my very first tour with Sourpatch, I was so scared to play in a band and around folks I thought were way more “punk” than me. Our drummer was in San Jose grind and hardcore bands that had toured a bunch before so Sourpatch ended up playing with bands of the like even though we were pop. I also definitely remember turning my amp almost all the way down at our first show because I was so nervous to be playing in a band.
What’s your favorite cultural dish: Lu pulu! Definitely lu pulu. Corned-beef, white onions, coconut milk steamed in a tightly wrapped tarot leaf. I also like Tongan keke because it reminds me of my grandma— it’s golden, round balls of fried dough.
Hear the talent of Christine through her solo project, Try the Pie:http://trythepie.bandcamp.com/album/wondrous
She also plays in a number of bands, check them out or support them if they’re coming through your town!