Kismet placed a notebook in her hands at the Art of Cool Festival in Spring 2014 when she started drawing what would become Soundpapered, a website featuring sketches – drawn live – of the industry’s greats and up-and-comers in jazz and hip hop. “It never occurred to me to combine the two until that night,” says Rachel Abrams of her then passion project. And it’s fortunate that she did. One hundred twenty drawings and six Moleskine notebooks later, Abrams just celebrated her debut solo exhibit at Brooklyn’s Okay Space in January.

What kind of pen do you use? I like to kick off with the big questions.

“I started with a Sharpie and was promptly told off by artists,” she explains in a friendly British accent. She takes it up an octave to articulate the artists’ warning, “It’ll eat the paper, and it’ll go green, and it’ll fade, and it’s horrible! Don’t use those!”

Now she uses Micron Archival Ink drawing pens and a strict set of rules:

  • If there’s a choice between just listening and taking photos or filming a gig, just listen.
  • If there’s a choice between listening and drawing too, draw.
  • Only draw live: No drawing from photos, minimal Photoshop after the fact, only coloring.
  • One archival Micron, one grey ProMarker, one gridded notepad. No eraser.
  • Make a mistake, carry on.
  • Pay attention. Pick one pose. Live acts don’t stand still.
  • Only good music, any location.
  • Tweet the raw pix from the venue.
  • Name the artists.
  • Feed with new drawings regularly.

And the rules need to be practiced, understood and respected. There’s too much to juggle once the curtain draws. Abrams muses have a similar philosophy. “Jazz requires incredible discipline in order to be liberated [for] creative expression,” says Abrams.

You should know, Rachel has years of professional drawing experience under her belt. She’s been drawing since she was a child, taken classes since high school, and has practiced her craft to the point of mastery. It’s through this mastery that one can partake in spontaneity, and in her case, kinetically expressing what she’s aurally experiencing at a time when each one of her senses are pulling her in different directions. Imagine that… capturing the feeling of the music on a piece of paper during a live performance. Sketching furiously to catch the right pose. Working against the clock. And being able to put what you’re feeling, and incidentally, what that artist is feeling, into a single image. So meta.

To get all that down in one sitting keeps you on your toes. She describes her work as busy, unlike the thoughtful, carefully crafted portraits of Al Hirschfeld. “[He’d] spend a week on a drawing,” says Abrams, “His economy of line showed that he had paired down what he’d seen.” No such luxury for Soundpapered.

When asked for her favorite subject, Abrams quickly responds with Thundercat. “[The first drawings are] really loose and crazy, but mostly because the music was really loose and crazy. I was standing right in front of his brother, who’s the drummer, and it was just like standing in front of a jet engine [while] Thundercat is exploding on the stage in front of you.”

Her style is certainly influenced by the music. But the way Abrams talks about New York makes me hope that it has something to do with the city that never sleeps. “One of the privileges and the payoffs for being [an] incredibly expensive, competitive, exhausting city is that there is this treasure here. The best people in a lot of industries are still here and if that doesn’t intimidate, exhaust and drain you, then it’s actually really affirming.”

Even now, after years of sketching the industry’s best, she still sounds star-struck by the artists she describes. But when you dig a little deeper and understand the cultural and social influence that her muses hold, it becomes obvious why.

“I felt very strongly that this period in music, this particular two or three years where Obama was inviting these guys that I’d drawn to the White House, [that jazz and hip hop had reached] a level of acceptability in the establishment because we had a black man as president. But also, because the politics of the music, and the connection between social music and social justice was coming back full force.”

Abrams has an incredible perspective. She’s a white, English woman who’s emigrated to America, recently becoming a citizen, in a fiercely divisive time in American history. She’s also fallen in love with a genre of music that is entirely American, yet not at all mainstream. And she’s chosen to use her art as a platform for other artists.

After the 2016 election, a friend of mine pointed out that music and art will get really good nowadays because creators really shine when they’re pissed. And Abrams sees just how important that is right now.

“It occurred to me while I was writing the proposal [for my exhibit] that the best form of activism, which I’d learned from musicians, was to bring light to these moments of real darkness. To bring levity to what felt heavy… to engage with what we’re facing now. And here are a bunch of people that are primed to [lead] the charge creatively because they’ve been at it for a while, articulating injustice that was very specific to their own friends, families and communities – their own population. And all of us have a lot to learn from that kind of resilience.”

And what better way to be active and an ally than to curate a show to echo that message. Abrams thought, “What if
we took some of these tropes… like stamps and currency and the constitution – this document that starts ‘We the people’ – and thought about [the] people who [we] aren’t representing.”

She continues, “The most powerful and highly conceptual composition, was the piece called Two Dollar Bill, which featured only female musicians and vocalists. They’re dropped onto a composition of the founding fathers, which is on the back of the two-dollar bill.” It makes you wonder when was the last time you even saw a two-dollar bill? Nevertheless, it’s another form of currency that’s gone in and out of style, showcasing our forefathers planning how to run the country.

Abrams walks me through the thought process of her piece, “Here are all these incredibly powerful [female] voices… and certainly they are [commanding], visible, and [have] presence on the stage. And wouldn’t it be kind of amazing to see that physical and feminine power on our currency? Not just scrapping over whether we get Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill, but to really [understand] that these constituencies are to be recognized on an equal footing.”

It’s interesting to think about how we’ll all look back on our present, sitting from a new vantage point in the future. “It’s kind of a time capsule,” Abrams points out of her exhibit. The same could be said about the Soundpapered project as a whole. Through her work, she encourages us to think about what the world and the careers of these artists will look like in a few decades.

Throughout our conversation, I wondered how she must feel becoming a citizen when there’s so much hostility, so much divisiveness, so much politically heat. And I couldn’t help the way I phrased the question:

Is this the America you signed up for?

“I think I was aware that this was the America I signed up for,” Abrams says, “and [I recognized that] the choice to do this needed to be a practical one, not some kind of hand-on-heart patriotism.” She went on to say that she’d made peace with her decision of moving to a country that needs some love. And it appears that she’s willing to provide that support. I suppose a better final question would have been, what have you gotten out of all this? Luckily, in the course of our conversation, she had answered that:

“The thing that emerged for me about this drawing exercise was that I was meditating in these jam sessions. What is it about this place that compels me to stay here? It was clear to me that it was always about the creative energy of New York, and about what kind of environment was conducive to making cool stuff with great people. It was heartbreaking to come to terms with the ugly side of a country that [I chose] to move to. [But then, I get to] watch the grace and ingenuity with which people respond to that.”

Photos courtesy of Follow Rachel and see her photos on Twitter and Instagram.

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