The directionality of Geena Kloeppel.
We climb the slanting stairs of a sagging building to clamber onto the roof. Out in the open, the air is biting but friendly, nipping at our cheeks with its soft breezes, and placating our warm cores in its moments of stillness. We pass two young people on our way to the neighboring rooftops. They sit atop an inflatable couch that, in all honesty looks like the kind of “lips” you wouldn’t want to talk about with your grandma. It’s something you see a video posted to Facebook that sells you white, upper middle-class privilege and pool floats.
But hey, it’s 2017 in the East Village, where the artists who gave it its reputation have flown the coop in favor of lower rents and more space in Bushwick or, god-forbid, somewhere beyond the 5 boroughs. Their places have been filled by 30-somethings who work at startups in Flat Iron, and who spend more on alcohol and Ubers than they do on rent (which itself is too high to print). Splattered among their luxe buildings are EV originals perched in their rent-controlled flats from the 80s, and the NYU student hold-outs just seeking a spot within walking distance of class. Geena is one of these students, subletting a fifth floor walk-up after a semester spent in Berlin. She shares the space with one roommate (happily) and one mouse (unhappily). Her tall frame perches on the ridge between buildings as we talk, her bangs shuffling across her forehead in the wind. Anyone can see she’s in love with New York as her eyes inadvertently dart to the side to take in a quick breath of the skyline. It is magical, to feel the building humming under your feet, and to think of the hundreds of thousands of bodies humming along, making dinner, drinking wine, catching up on the OA, wrapping up a night shift. But Geena seems to feel this magic in her bones, a depth of sensation few tap into during their New York stint.
Geena once called herself an artist, as a bright-eyed 18-year-old, fresh to New York from her hometown of Bonn, a city south of Cologne on the Western coast of Germany. No, she does not have an accent. Yes, it is because she went to international school. “They usually don’t ask follow-up questions, so I think a lot of people, when I meet them, don’t even realize that I’m half-half,” she says.
She’s referring to the fact that despite having spent the last 30 years in Germany, her mother is a Minnesota native. In fact, Geena’s English comes mostly from her mother, so she pronounces “always” like she’s talking about “Al’s hot dog stand” and giggles like a Midwesterner – her accent is about as American as they come. When asked what it’s like to exist between these worlds, Geena says she feels German. “I guess,” she clarifies. “I always ask myself if I feel American, but the problem with me feeling American is that I never really lived in the state that my mother is from. I lived there for three months once, like, big deal.” She tosses in a wry smile here – for someone who has seen 35 countries and 20-some states, a three month stint isn’t nearly enough to earn the title of “Minnesotan.” From her perspective, “most people from the United States have an identity based on a state. I never had that. So my whole US identity is essentially New York. When people ask me in Germany where I’m from, I’m like, “well, I’m from New York.” And that makes sense to them. Because no one in Germany knows where Minnesota is.”
But for her lack of identity with the Midwest, its music has become her life-line. That stretch of middle-America has produced a folk atmosphere quite unlike any other. Just ask Justin Vernon, whose break-out album For Emma – recorded alone, in a cabin in the woods after a long stint of self-realization that can only be described as Thoreau-ian – became the stuff of legend, and launched the bearded Wisconsin-native to the forefront of the folk and far beyond. This woodsy, flat stretch of the States has become a hub for the softest, most sensitive sounds on the market, and Geena’s songwriting is based in these sounds. She has released two albums, the first of which in high school, and was met with considerable success in Germany. But her second album, which she explains contained “more of myself and my heart…It was about a lot of things, but a very rough period of my life” did okay, falling short of the success she expected. Geena took the dip hard. “I was so emotionally invested in it, that when it didn’t do well? [pauses] I don’t want to say I took it personally or as a personal attack, but it hit me really hard. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe it’s not what I’m supposed to do.’”
So she stopped. She stopped writing songs, she stopped performing, and she started questioning the artist she always thought she would be. Taunting thoughts ran circles around her head, asking “am I adding anything new to folk? Or to indie folk? Or to alternative?,” drying up her voice and strangling her inspiration. “I felt like I wasn’t doing anything,” she says. “I felt like I was just existing in this little musical world I created for myself, and I didn’t know who really cared about that, or about me, or if my voice mattered.” There’s a grain of sadness mixed in her voice when she says this, but it’s wrapped in a layer of self-awareness, a sensation of self-reflection and self-realization. To step away from your lain path is often met with judgmental eyes, but rarely is this a retreat in fear, it is perhaps a mindful shift – an analysis of where you are and how you’re getting where you’re going.
In the throes of this swing, Geena found herself drawn to journalism, the field in which both her parents work, and the world in which she grew up. It came to her second nature; unlike the abstractness of writing music, music-writing was concrete facts and figures she could wrap her fingers around. And she was good at it: after a few internship applications, Geena was taken up at Spin, where she has since been working to hone her new voice in her new craft. Geena misses creating music, but knows she’ll come back to making her own music again one day: “Not until I know what it is that I can contribute that’s new, or that’s interesting, or that’s worthy, or valuable,” she says. The two parts of her don’t have to be in opposition; it is not one or the other, why would it be?
To Geena, “in journalism there’s hard news and there’s soft news, and if you were to categorize my life into two types of news: the music journalism part would be hard news, and the songwriting would be soft news. You need both of them to inform yourself and to keep informed. Readers also want both hard fact, and they also want to read something creative where you show them a more abstract way to look at things than just the concrete.” At the center of these two halves is the core of Geena’s passion for music itself.
It’s the ability of music to shift feeling and influence people’s emotional state that has always reeled Geena in. Music as an extension of sensation can help magnify and clarify what it means to feel. “When you felt something, you could have music there, and it would be there to make you feel better, or help you understand what you’re feeling, or just to let you go through it with your favorite song.” She smiles, laughing about when she was accepted to NYU and spent the night dancing away to Frank Sinatra. It’s that – the ability of music to become intrinsically linked with a moment in time and a splice of a feeling – that lies at the heart of what Geena back to music. It’s what leaves her in orbit, testing the waters of songwriting, singing, music writing, and whichever next interest comes her way.
In everything she does, Geena considers the feeling of music in the body and in space. “I guess I’m just very perceptive, and because I’ve met so many people from so many countries, body language is something that I am much more aware of, as well as tone of voice. Not necessarily what they’re saying, but the way voices peak and fall, and the textures in certain words, and phrasing…All of those things, I’m much more drawn to them. And I think when I write music, that also plays into how I play, how the phrase sounds in my mouth, and how it rolls off the tip of my tongue. The way that the melody changes the texture of the vowel, and all of those things.” This attention to the sensation of sound plays into how she creates and exists within the realm of music. It’s a sensitivity that inherently leaves her vulnerable, because she is that much more in touch with the minute changes that impact her existence, day in, day out.
It’s with a curdle of bitterness on her tongue and a gleam of exhilaration in her eye that Geena speaks about what it is that has left her so vulnerable. She’s faced her share of life’s difficulties, but her second album was primarily centered around her first heartbreak two years ago. Today, she still carries the weight of these experiences under her skin, but with some hard earned callouses. I asked what she’d say to that boy now, and she paused, clicking her tongue as she searched for her words.
“You gave me a cast iron shell, but you don’t know I’m still that 18 year old girl that fell for you, and I can be at any given moment or at any given time just because I hear a song, or because I’m reminded of something. I am still just as vulnerable, and I can be, and I will be forever.”
“I think that maybe he doesn’t know that,” she says. “I always assume people know that I’m vulnerable, but the older I get, the more I think people don’t see how vulnerable I always feel.” This is where Geena’s greatest strength shines: her vulnerability is where her inspiration lies, and the exact crux at which she is most relatable. That’s the funny thing about cast iron: its hard surface is actually porous and susceptible to damage – it won’t bend or break, but it has a beautiful tendency to soak in the flavors with which it comes in contact. Each moment melds into unique palette, and radiates that blend in return, accounting for each experience along the way.
So it doesn’t really matter if Geena’s singing, writing, performing, exploring: she’ll figure out her relationship with music as it happens. Everything blends into one greater image of who she is and who she’ll be. Right now she’s just feeling it out, finding her way.