Friday, June 14, 2024

Howling wind: Carla Patullo turns suffering into award-winning art

Trailblazing LGBTQ+ artist Carla Patullo makes GRAMMY® history as the first openly gay woman to be nominated and to win in her category.

I first found out about Carla Patullo more than a decade ago now. At the time, she was recording under the nom de rock “White Widow” and I spoke with her for Curve. Her then-current album, Black Heart, was a winning mixture of singer-songwriter fare, a bit of electronics and some good old rock and roll. When I asked her about the name White Widow back then, she said, “[Stevie Nicks] refers to the black widow in her song ‘Gold Dust Woman.’ I kind of came up with the idea of White Widow because there’s this sadness to [my music].. Edgy but bright, I guess, is what I’m going for.” 

10 years is a long time, though. Certainly there are some artists who travel the path of least resistance and don’t change their sound that much in a decade; Patullo is not one of those. Imagine my surprise when I heard her latest album, So She Howls, which arrived last year. It’s a song cycle of sorts: nine tracks of ambient music! Patullo composed, performed and produced the album but was assisted by flautist Reva Youngstein, clarinet player Dan Spitzer and a string quartet. Had I not known, I never would have guessed this was the same artist who released those White Widow albums. 

So She Howls is was borne from a brush with cancer that Patullo went through a few years back. She recorded most of these tracks while in treatment — some while she was actually in the hospital! Her goals were to capture the moment;  to use her music as one part of her healing; and to connect with others who might be on parallel journeys. It seems to have worked; in November, Patullo received her first GRAMMY nomination! So She Howls was up for Best New Age, Ambient or Chant Album—a category which she won. 

This time around, I caught up with Patullo from her home in LA. That was another change from when I last spoke with her. An East coast native, Patullo was living in Austin, Texas a decade ago. For her Queer Forty interview, we covered everything from the new album to her brush with cancer (she’s now in remission) to her move to California. What hasn’t changed in the last decade is that she is still a pleasure to speak with.

Queer Forty: What I know is that the new album, So She Howls, was inspired by [your] brush with cancer. I don’t really know the specifics: when that happened, what stage was it, what type of cancer. Are you okay talking about that?

Carla Patullo: Yeah, I am. Even being able to talk about it has become [easier] for me. At first, I didn’t talk about it just because of all the anxiety I had. But the more I’ve put myself out there with it, it’s actually helped me with that! 

Fortunately, I caught it somewhat early; I was a stage two. And it was breast cancer. The type of breast cancer I had — gosh, if you got it 30 years ago, it would have been a death sentence. But there’s this new drug that was invented. I took this medicine called Herceptin and it saved my life! You know, it was just a game changer. This was pre-COVID, when I started. 

Q40: Wow!

Carla Patullo: Yeah, it was like the December before COVID [started]! That sounds crazy, but I also realized how fortunate I am that I figured it out before. Because it would have been a nightmare. You know, when you get some diagnosis — especially when you’re in LA — it’s hard to get appointments with doctors. So they were kind of like, “Yeah, you’ve got [cancer]. You can see your first doctor in 12 weeks!”  (laughs)  There were a lot of unknowns that I was sitting with for awhile — not even knowing the stage. I knew it was somewhat early. But I [also] knew that it was a fast moving type. I didn’t know about the medicine that was available or anything like that. 

So I just hit a wall. I was just like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” No one in my family had had cancer before. Come to find out, it wasn’t something that was passed down to me or genetic. So it was a shocker. And that’s why I just hit a wall. Kind of went down this really dark hole. You know, all the things you wish you had done differently. I wish I could say, “I’ve got no regrets in life,” but I don’t think that’s very honest. Of course there are things I could have done a little differently — and maybe spent more time thinking about my health! 

But after I was able to just sing things — you know, the world kind of shut down [during COVID]. There wasn’t really much film scoring work, which was kind of my bread and butter.  And there was a piece, “So She Howls,” that I actually wrote before. It was tied in with my Mom’s passing. But then this album really switched [gears] and I started writing about this experience [with cancer]. And it ended up just being howling. You know, I never wrote words because I felt like these are raw emotions [and] sounds coming out of my body. There’s no words for it. I just needed to howl and get it out of me.  Then, as I finally started my treatment, my prognosis got better! So, that all of a sudden [felt like] “I wanna finish it,” you know? 

I don’t think people should think [when they] listen to this just about breast cancer, though. Going into it too, I was like, “I don’t really wanna say too much about that. I want someone to be able to listen to this with their own experience and their own trauma that they’re dealing with.” It’s been quite a ride.

Q40: Are you in remission now?

Carla Patullo: Yeah! My prognosis is excellent. The medicine they gave me helped pretty instantly. But I did go through a process of treatment for a couple of years.

I [also] changed my lifestyle. You know, I wake up in the morning [now and] I go for a very long walk. I eat healthy food! It’s changed me completely. I respect my body — and I do better work because of that, I think.

Q40: For what it’s worth — I haven’t had cancer but since I met you, I lost my Mom to cancer and my own health has been [awful]. I had a heart attack a few years ago, out of the blue. You’ve met me; I’m thin!

Carla Patullo: I wouldn’t expect that because you look so fit. 

Q40: I don’t play music, but I write. And I remember being in the hospital a few years ago and trying to write a poem about what I was going through. Having art of any sort does help, you know?

Carla Patullo: It really does. And you write, but you also listen to so much music. It’s amazing that you’re connected in that way.

Q40: Let me ask you about the type of music on So She Howls. I knew you 10 years ago, from the White Widow days — which was more singer-songwriter [stuff] but with a rock and roll edge. This is 180 degrees removed! It’s ambient music. I wanted to ask you about [your musical] journey. Was it a slow move into composing this genre or was it instantaneous?

Carla Patullo: It was kind of gradual, actually. Probably around the time we last saw each other — one of my albums, A Psychological Thriller, was a concept album. These animators made a film to it and I was like, “Oh cool!” That’s when I started to see how my music could work to visuals. I started really paying attention to film scores. 

Then there was this nine-month [film scoring] program with Berklee. I went to it for my Masters, just a nine-month program in Spain, which sounded fun at the time!  That was when I [decided], “Wow, I gotta do this!” I fell in love with orchestral music. Then my sound [changed]. Sometimes I will bring in more guitar nowadays. But it just, like, flowed into this space of orchestral music. I love working with different instrumentation. 

Q40: Of the nine songs on this album there are only two with lyrics. I did want to ask you about the closing song, “And Love,” which does have lyrics. It reminded me a little bit of a Kate Bush tune.

Carla Patullo: Well, I love Kate Bush! That’s an amazing compliment, so thank you. You know, that song — yeah, it’s the one with lyrics. I’m hoping that people can vibe out on this album and realize that I’m getting to the other side of this trauma. “And Love” is really about gratitude — and about being able to feel the love of the people who are in your life [either] now or who have passed on. Just feeling that warmth.

There were some magical moments going through this horrific experience. Like, I could feel my [late] Mom’s presence. It’s hard to put into words — but this experience of feeling her warmth was like another gift she had given me. Or something else she had left behind for me. So that song is just [about] being able to sing again, you know? Being able to have words again!  (laughs)

Q40: Interesting. The time we had lunch, I think you mentioned that your Mom had been in a car accident.

Carla Patullo: You’re right. It was very sudden.  The unexpectedness of it shocked [me]. It was like the shock I experienced with my diagnosis. I did not see this coming. I knew — just having gone through my Mom — the mental hurdle of going through something shocking like that. Even with cancer, there’s all the physical stuff. You know, you feel like crap and all that. But the mental part of being able to get through this, I knew would be the biggest challenge for me

Q40: I noticed that you’re based in California now. But I think when I met you, you were living in Austin. I remember asking you what it was like being a queer woman in Texas. And you told me that Austin was not like [most] of Texas — that it was very liberal. 

Carla Patullo: Yes! I did love Austin. It was really a fun city. It had so much music, so much energy and it was smaller — which I did like. I liked it being a city but feeling like a big town. And it was a lot more affordable, especially back then!  (laughter) 

But I ended up coming out to LA mainly for the film scene. I really wanted to come out here and explore more orchestral [stuff], film scoring, sessions and meet musicians in that field. And I love LA! It took me awhile. It was a little bit of a hiccup, you know?  It’s so big. There’s so many different neighborhoods and different vibes. [But] I really love that about it. I think what’s so amazing about LA is that, being a gay woman here, you can go anywhere. It’s not like [there’s] one neighborhood where all the gay people hang out; it’s a lot more open here. So I do appreciate that. 

Q40: I understand the [new] album has been nominated for a GRAMMY award! Tell me about that. It must be super exciting. 

Carla Patullo: It’s so exciting!  I mean — again, this album started in the lowest place of my life! [I] definitely didn’t see it coming. It was shocking — but this time it was a good shock! So I’m still processing it. 

I connect with different musicians out here. And during GRAMMY season, I submitted it in the Recording Academy, just thinking “this is what you do.” Didn’t expect much. But I’m super grateful for the people who took the time to listen to it. It’s just wild. I thought I would have to get here with a record deal or with other things in place first. So I’m super excited that I did it without a label!  (laughs) 

Q40: Well, best of luck. It’s great to be nominated but it would be even greater if you win.

Carla Patullo: Thank you so much. Fingers are crossed! 

Get So She Howls here.

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Dave Steinfeld

Dave Steinfeld grew up in Connecticut and is now based in New York City. He has been a professional journalist since 1999 and has very possibly written about women in music more than any male journalist in America. He has interviewed Patti Smith, Neneh Cherry, Ani DiFranco, Ann Wilson, Marianne Faithfull, Chrissie Hynde, Cyndi Lauper, Sophie B. Hawkins, the Indigo Girls, and Amanda Palmer who once called him “an honorary lesbian.” Dave has written for Curve, BUST, Bitch, Essence, Glide, Louder, and many more titles.

Dave Steinfeld has 12 posts and counting. See all posts by Dave Steinfeld

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