Please introduce yourself & give us a glimpse into your world. Where are you located? What are you currently creating?
My name is Clay Camero and I live in the woods in the foothills of the western mountains of Maine. I’m currently homesteading with my husband Dylan, 2 dogs, 2 cats, 8 goats and chickens. We live above the Carrabassett river in a house we built over an old pre-existing foundation left over from the early 1900s when the place was a hydro-electric powerplant. The river, named after Wabanaki chief Carrabassett, who lived with his people along these banks long before white man, and who was brutally murdered below the North Anson gorge by white soldiers, imbues its presence into every aspect of our lives. In drought and in flood, its voice is heard even through closed windows and doors, and its flow feeds the creatures that dwell along its banks, and feeds us with a bright, constantly changing energy. This energy is what drew me to the place – the power of water, the power of liquid current to sustain life, to pull you out by your roots like a tree in flood and take you to places unforeseen.
I’m currently focused on trying to deprogram my inherent racism and prejudice, trying to educate myself on the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) narrative by reading, participating and having conversations that directly address the injustices that have been forced upon the BIPOC community for hundreds of years by white people. I realize as a white woman I have a very limited scope, and that in order to come to terms with what’s happening in Maine and around the world, I need to first come to terms with what’s happening inside my head. I’m learning to clear out my own bullshit to make room for other voices. Re-learning how to listen, absorb, and radiate what I’ve learned. I really want to find a way to help bring diverse voices to rural Maine and get people listening, hearing stories they can relate to, told by people of color. I think racism and prejudice have less of a chance of spreading generationally (which is a plague of sorts up here in small town white America) when it’s flooded with new experiences, media, contact and compassion, and narratives told by empowered voices calling for change.
I recently founded a non-profit called Project Freewill, to give a voice to underground artists in rural Maine, and to provide a community safe space to gather, collaborate and present hybrid forms of music, visual art, video, sculpture, dance, woodworking, dance, the list goes on, and to have seminars and classes on process, writing, recording albums, and navigating the world as an artist. I am using what I learn from listening to BIPOC and LGBTQ voices to dream up programming and events in the future for our space. In the meantime, we’re fixing the space, a Baptist church from 1837, reviving it to become a safe place in our community. We are currently using the church as a recording studio and for covid-safe quarantine/residencies, and have a nice roster of underground Mainer artists we’re safely making albums with. This summer, we fixed a massive leak in the roof, and have been slowly getting the building back to working order. As a non-profit, we rely on donations. Currently, we need a source of heat and to winterize the building to keep our projects going during the long cold months. We are now raising money for insulation, insulated stovepipe and a woodstove as we fix the broken stained glass windows and make storm windows and do what we can to tighten the building out of pocket. More info can be found at www.savefreewill.org.
Every weekend, Sat and Sun, 830pm-9pm I do my radio show called Inside Outlaw on WXNZ-LP Hoo Skow radio, 98.1 FM, broadcast out of the old jail in Skowhegan. I record my sets at the church studio. It’s been a lot of work over the years, but a joy to make sets pertinent to the struggle at hand, to share music with the community that they might not otherwise hear. www.splatterbox.us/wxnz
And then there’s my own music -- my purpose, my way of sharing my thoughts and experiences. I’m in the process recording new work I’ve written since this pandemic hit, writing more and more to add to the enormous backlog of songs I’ve written over the years. Some crazy dark dance numbers fitting for this Year of the Rat. If and when things get back to normal, I hope to continue to record artists in the community and release a LP Compilation of New Original Western Maine Classics on my label, Saxwand Records. I’m also working on reviving an old album I made with my cousin, rapper Nappy THC, collaborating with other folks via the internet, AND finishing up the next Clay Camero & the County Line Bandits record, El Otro Lado, about walking the road of exile with the ghosts of love, shapeshifting to cross the river to the ‘other’ side, mirages of freedom and dissolving borders, waiting ‘por la luz de la luna illuminado el otro lado’—for the light of the moon to illuminate the other side. Shapeshifting to fly across the river in the light of the moon. It’s almost done! Really looking forward to the day all the Bandits can get together and play again. They are so inspiring to me in their involvement in fighting for equality, in the love and support they bring the community, the light they share and offer to all around them. SO lucky to have such people in my life, and making music with them has been the best part of live performance for me thus far in my musical career. Not to mention recording and touring. They are insanely good at being fresh and wild and fun, and the dedication they bring to the music, tirelessly working on it, I can’t begin to thank them enough. They’ve taught me humility, how to relax on stage and how to let go with love. They are my musical family, and support me in navigating these degenerating times with their own creations, their solo projects, their original music that speaks to their own experiences.
In the meantime, writing piano songs and playing blues guitar in strange tunings, very inspired by African desert blues, and just took up the fiddle, trying to teach myself how to play by ear, like I do everything else. Blues songs and ballads in the form of poetic apologies to people killed by police, to people sold and enslaved, to slaves buried without a gravestone, silent beneath a rug of periwinkle. Musical atonement.
Can you tell us about a childhood experience that was profound or life changing? Or a memory that still resonates with you today?
I have always been drawn to water, was raised on the St. Lawrence River, grew up sailing, canoeing, and swimming in its cold body. To escape the torments of a difficult childhood, I would sit upon the mossy rocks looking at the line where the water meets the horizon and watch the birds diving below the surface into the deep inky weeds swaying below. I’d wonder at the mystery of water, entranced by the line that divides the river from the air I breathe. I would sing to the water and hide behind boulders until I missed the comforts of the hearth, however tumultuous the humans were that gathered around it. I quickly found that nature, or the non-human realm, trusted me more and questioned me less than the humans in my life did, and that in the woods, surrounded by freshets and ruins and songbirds and brambles, I felt safer than I did at home. Or maybe that I felt more at home in the woods than I did anywhere else. This continued with me, and when I was 15, I ran away from home to live by a river by myself in tangled, spiny central Florida. And the quest continued….
What daily rituals or practices if any, connect you with the spiritual realms?
Every morning is different, though one constant is that I try to wake up thankful for another day alive, and sing prayers for the cessation of suffering for all beings. I sing prayers for the sick, for the dying and recently deceased, pray for equanimity and pray for people in exile. I sing for all those who identify as a victim, in hopes they become empowered enough to help those around them who are suffering. I meditate on impermanence, pray to come to terms with my own suffering, and spiritually dedicate my life and my music to those who are experiencing and fighting injustice. Some mornings I wake up angry, sad, or disturbed by my dreams. Then I find walking or running is the best medicine. Or just sitting by the river. Or finding some animals to rub up on. Or my beautiful husband, if I can find him.
What parts of the world do your ancestors come from? What inspires you most about your ancestral cultural background/s?
Some believe knowing where one’s people come from is important. Those lucky enough to know their ancestors often find great strength in their stories of overcoming adversity, leaving home to grow roots in new lands. This is a privilege. Many don’t know their ancestors’ names. Many people’s ancestors were killed in battle. Many were taken from their homeland in chains and forced into slave labor. So if honoring ancestors is deeply imbedded in all spiritual practice throughout every culture, how do we honor those who are lost, who have no name, who are buried in unmarked graves, or who were so immersed in their own darkness they were deemed ‘disturbed’ or ‘possessed’ and therefore feared as too dangerous to commune with spiritually?
As a culturally disenfranchised white woman who was raised agnostic, with hardly any mention of extended family, no contact really with cousins or aunts or uncles, and deep dark secrets keeping anyone from talking about the past, I tried to find something else to relate to, and something to keep me going without feeling lost, rootless and cultureless. As a child I was very spiritually inclined, spoke to dead people in the graveyard behind our house, played dead much to my mother’s chagrin. Later I found reading of other people’s roots, rituals and religious practice inspiring and illuminating, and from my seeming lack-of roots, I fashioned a practice entirely my own based on this research, gut instinct and the spiritual act of making music. My mother was incredibly helpful in this process, and I owe so much to her for giving me love, wonderful and strange books, teaching me creative discipline, and allowing me at a very young age to find my own way. She got me my first guitar and a saxophone when I was very young. No one else in the family is a musician—how did she know to foster this part of me that is now essential to my very existence? She is a writer and the first in her family to go to college, fought inequality every step of the way, rose up out of the confines of poverty to help make the world a better place. She raised my sister and I to be unafraid, undaunted to climb the walls that try to keep us in, perhaps because she was so familiar with escape and survival.
In my 20’s, my mom researched our French Canadian roots, how they came from County Tipperary in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, before that the Black Forest and Finland. She told me how they played music and gathered around the piano and sang and danced and worked the land making maple syrup, logging, and farming to try to eke out a living. I finally began to identify with my ancestors. No wonder I lived in the north woods, had a love affair with maple syrup, hard work and music! My mother took me up to where my Grandfather was born and raised, north of Ottawa, and we met some cousins that were so welcoming and loving. But their experiences with my Grandfather and Grandmother were limited, and dark, and rooted in sadness. There were secrets and multi-generational patterns of mental illness that ended in tragedy. There are patterns in our ancestry that we can work to break, and in that sense, finally learning of my ancestry was helpful. My Grandfather was one of 9 children, deemed incredibly smart at a young age, and thus was promised an education he never received due to poverty and lack of resources. He became a house painter until his dying days.
My dad, who was born in England and raised in an orphanage during WWII, always told us strange stories of his ancestors late at night around the supper table. Tales of burning ships, battles, rape, and exile. When he died, I tried to piece together what information he left us, his different versions of stories, a few pages and underlined names from an old book called “Notable People.” Also a lot of darkness and secrets and tragedy from his journals. England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Norway. No one knows my great grandmother’s name. She was Irish, taken on a prison ship to Australia at 13, bought by my great grandfather to become a kitchen maid. And the very man who bought her raped her and a child was born. My grandmother is the product of this transaction of brutality. Sadly, I never got to meet her. She abandoned my father when he was 2 and ran away with a French revolutionary. She died alone in the streets of London drinking cheap Gin to stay warm.
Coming to terms with one’s ancestry, as a white person, is coming to terms with a deep history of sexism, racism, colonialism and classism. I have no pride in this ancestry. But I can learn from it, and try to stop repeating patterns dead in their tracks. My people were both victims and perpetrators of heinous crimes. For me, it’s less about finding solace in their stories, rather a quest to try to understand their actions and put them to rest with compassion.
How do you stay connected to your Ancestors?
I try to honor all the women in my bloodline by learning how to tap in to the reservoir of ancestral sorrow without falling in, using that sadness in the creative process to transform it into active healing music.
I’m currently writing a book and accompanying album about my ancestors. I’m reimagining their experiences, both on my mother’s side and my father’s. The book is set in Australia and Scotland. I aim to give my ancestors back the voices and names that were stolen from them.
In the past, I’ve asked my ancestors for guidance with music and with finding a place to put down roots. Perhaps they guided me here, to these woods in Maine.
This connection with my ancestors deepens as I get older. I feel the veil is thin and they are with me at any given time. Like last night, my dad was with me on the beach. If not his spirit, his presence as summoned from the recesses of my mind, and I could feel him there with me. Was he actually there with me? Who knows. But this feeling of being haunted/visited was unexpected, and sorrowful and beautiful all at the same time. There’s so much unresolved sorrow in my family. It’s something we all draw from creatively, a silent cold well of darkness to drink and turn into light.
Where in nature do you seek inspiration / healing / guidance / refuge? In other words do you have a "spot" or an activity? Please describe.
My heart is my refuge, other people are my refuge. It took finding this beautiful place and trying to heal myself with its rhythms that I realized it doesn’t matter where you are, and while a beautiful place in nature can help if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s actually good practice to seek refuge within yourself no matter where you are, and to see everything-- cities, pollution, crowds, traffic, etc. as an illusion and no better or worse than the cooling grove far from humans. This takes practice, and it isn’t easy. But it helps. Everything is a manifestation of the great Mother (or God, or the unnamable, the intangible). And if you truly believe that, you can navigate any and all situations in any place and find beauty and power in strangers and strange places. Strangers are full of wisdom.
As humans we want to be comfortable, are primarily focused on survival, and in seeking comfort we tend forget the suffering of others. If we are privileged enough to choose where we live, we try to find the prettiest place to set down roots and escape, and then what? You sit with your tangled mind and try to untangle it, and find you need other voices to lead you in the right direction, or another warm body to seek solace in. You find you need to seek wisdom for your untrained, unruly mind. And you leave the safety of your cozy confines to seek what wisdom you cannot teach yourself.
What is the last good book you read?
I’m examining the word ‘diaspora’ lately, and the process of exile; to be exiled, and to exile oneself. Here are the books I’m reading now that deal with this theme:
Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories, Yimikirli
Leaving Mother Lake, by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu
Home and Exile, by Chinua Achebe
Notes on a Lost Flute – Field Guide to the Wabanaki, by Kerry Hardy
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
How can people find you & your work?
Project Freewill www.savefreewill.org