Ryder Cooley (Dust Bowl Faeries) Bringing Life to the Lost -By: Liam Sweeny

Written by on July 4, 2021

Art is subjective. Music too. And we’re passionate in our opinions. Music and art can be pleasant, designed to take us to our bliss. Other music and art can challenge us, make us question what we know, even broaden our conception of what art and music are.

Ryder Cooley is an artist and musician. Her band, Dust Bowl Fairies, is an eclectic fusion, and Ryder’s work is esoteric and packed with meaning. She will challenge you, and reveal an art that is more expansive than you’d imagined.

I sit with Ryder and we discussed Jurassic Park. All of them.

RRX: When I first became hip to you, admittedly recently, I saw Hazel, your disembodied goat’s head. Though maybe I shouldn’t say “yours” because it seems Hazel might belong to the world. Giving a soul, if you will, to Hazel, was it always there, or did it come about through a creative act?

RC: Oh yes, Hazel has a soul, we all do, don’t we?  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think the crux of this question is about death. Being pre-disposed to morbidities, I have given death quite a bit of thought (and observation) and I have come to the conclusion that energy leaves the body in death, and is released into the world. Though I cannot take any credit for the existence of Hazel’s soul, I do think that our collaboration has helped preserve her energy and wisdom by providing her spirit with the opportunity to act as a guide, a spirit guide. 

I’m not a big fan of ownership or the “P word” (property/language of capitalism), so I would say that Hazel first and foremost belongs to herself, and then she belongs to the spirit world. It’s an honor to be the steward of the mortal remains of Hazel, which is infused with her residual energy. I try to invoke Hazel’s spirit at performances, and after a decade of performing together, I think of Hazel as an extension of myself. I refer to Hazel as “she” since I’m the mortal body for Hazel in her afterlife. Hazel is an integral part of my identity and I’m one of those confusing changeling creatures who can’t quite fit into any conventional identity. I’m plural (non-binary if you will) and a faerie, yet drawn to the feminine, which is why I use the pronoun ‘she’ for myself, and for Hazel. 

RRX: You have a band called Dust Bowl Fairies, which is described as, “dark carnival music.” I’m imagining that, with your work with animals and taxidermy, it’s quite an atmosphere, engrossing, probably. Does the band set a mood as part of a larger performance, or is the music in the lead and backed up by the performance?

RC: Dust Bowl Faeries can be quite expansive and theatrical when given the opportunity. We like to perform with projections and costumes and aerials and extra sensory elements that will transport our beloved guests to other realms. However, woe is us, here we are in a compartmentalized culture where independent music is squeezed into venues that can’t support anything beyond the music itself, and let’s be real, these days venues can make a heck of a lot more money hosting weddings than music shows! Weddings are putting musicians out of business here in the NY Hudson Valley, with the exception of wedding bands, of course. Perhaps someday Dust Bowl Faeries will hit the jackpot and be able to present music in true faerie-tale form, but until then, I would say that the music leads.  I do create solo performances which are a departure from standard music shows, so I would say my solo work is more conceptual and performance driven. 

RRX: It looks like there’s a lot on the Dust Bowl Fairies plate. All the way through the summer throughout the Capital Region and the Hudson Valley. With an air of extinction and the show and set you put on, is it cathartic in anyway to be getting back out there right now to perform for people?

RC: It is cathartic to be performing live again, that’s the perfect adjective, thanks for the handout Liam! I’m not much of a cyborg, nor are the other members of the band.  Embodied, energetic exchanges with live audiences really drives our music.  I worked pretty hard to keep Dust Bowl Faeries active during the pandemic with virtual shows, videos and a new album called The Plague Garden.  Lisa M. Thomas made an incredible video with us last summer called Candy Store, which really brought the band together again after months of social distancing. But all of this is to say that yes, we are thrilled to be playing live again and we hope that anyone who is ready to brave the world of social engagement will join us for a live performance!

RRX: I mentioned extinction, because I read that it’s a favored concept for you. And I say concept, because your art attempts to symbolically and metaphysically resuscitate extinct animals. And with DNA samples and cloning advances, do you think we need metaphoric resuscitation only until science and conservation catch up?

RC: Extinction is not exactly a favorite subject for me since I am an animal advocate and I deeply care about species diversity, so ultimately, I don’t want animals to go extinct, especially not as a direct result of human destructiveness. I do have many songs and performances about extinction and endangered species, which I’ve created in an effort to shed light upon the tragedy of these losses, and as a reminder/wake-up call for all of us to live more sustainably. I don’t think that we can bring back that which we have destroyed, be it via science, DNA cloning, whatever. My song “Ibex” on The Plague Garden album addresses this. We may be able to re-create a facsimile, but the process of doing so is in itself destructive since it involves animal experimentation. Playing god is dangerous, it opens up the floodgates for ongoing destructiveness by suggesting that everything is reversible and that conservation is futile. 

RRX: Taxidermy has always been on the edge of what is taboo in society. You can have a collection of figurines, but a collection of squirrels and people give you a side-eye. But what you do with taxidermy I think transcends collecting. Where did you first start with taxidermy? Do you find the animals, or have you done it yourself?

RC: I like to collect things like bones and feathers, and sometimes I find dead things and take them home to study or draw. If you open my freezer you will find a bunch of frozen bird wings and such, which I save for rituals and sometimes for art projects, but when it comes to taxidermy I consider my “collection” to be more like a rescue. Killing animals and stuffing them is not anything I would do. Cutting their heads off and hanging them on the wall like trophies is horrid, and bad luck. That’s why I rescue the animals and give them a comfortable home after they are discarded. I don’t display animals on the wall. The taxidermy creatures in my home are part of the family, I try to make them comfortable, resting them on cushions and chairs, I honor their spirits. I don’t buy taxidermy, they come to me. I don’t support killing animals for any reason, animals are my friends. I don’t eat my friends or stuff their mortal remains, or decapitate them and hang their heads on the wall. I cherish my friends, all of them, the taxidermy friends and the living friends, the animal friends and the human friends.

RRX: I share your passion for animals. I volunteered at a farm sanctuary when I was fourteen. And it’s so hard to get people to understand that animals can feel the same pain humans do. Makes it harder to eat a steak. But you don’t preach to people. How is your art a message, and how is it a statement?

RC: It’s always a relief to meet other animal advocates and empaths!  The only way I was able to dive in and start making music was to come to it myself, without anyone telling me what to do, how to play an instrument, how to read notes on a page, how to write a song, etc. I guess that’s the way I think people might understand animal consciousness, through stories and songs, pictures and colors, melodies and lyrics, anything that communicates on a more subconscious and visceral level. I like to make work that lures people in, like a really good mystery novel that’s full of intrigue. I want to hypnotize people with my work and speak to the senses, not just the intellect.  Just think, what a terrible world we would live in if there were no animals left, just people. What if we ate them all, destroyed them all, and there were only simulations of animals? That’s not a world I want to live in. The suffering of animals due to experimentation and exploitation is such a nightmare, which is why a lot of my work has a haunting feeling. Thank you for asking this very poignant question.

RRX: This is where you answer the question I didn’t ask. Best color to dye your teeth? Glitter bombs or silly string? Educate, enlighten, emote – the floor is yours.

It’s time to get witchy, go out into the woods, forage some wild herbs, make some tinctures and teas, find your wishing wells and cast your spells, we need magic right now. It’s up to each and every one of us to find that magic and share it with others, and take care of each other, respect each other, embrace diversity, which includes animals and plants and all the creatures and everything. Celebrate individuality, it’s what makes the world interesting and beautiful. And, if you are having trouble doing any of that, come to a Dust Bowl Faeries show, we will cast a spell for you.

Candy Store Video: https://youtu.be/jELSbCqfWxY

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