Sadie Woods, artist and curator, Chicago

with Courtney Cintron

Sadie Woods_photo by Eve Hypothesis

One often thinks of music-related practices as being linear in trajectory and uni-disciplinary. Yet the lives of many musicians and administrators are more intricate in scope and breadth than what one might expect. There is an increasing flexibility and fluidity that allows for more areas of intersection and collaboration.

Sadie Woods’s practice is a multiverse that includes sound art, deejaying, and curating. Although her childhood soundscape was intensely musical and she attended Columbia College for vocal performance, Woods would not return to her musical practice until several explorations into visual arts and curating. Returning with a new found vigor, Woods approached her musical endeavors through an artistic side that allowed for a deeper and more rigorous conceptual practice–hacking into issues of identity, race, and social constructs. She continues to search for meaningful cultural and creative experiences that allow a space for freedom.

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Track 1: Radio  Lights

Playground Study: Miss Mary Mack­mary­mack


COURTNEY: How did music factor into your life growing up? Who were your musical influences?

SADIE: I grew up in Chicago—Humboldt Park and Boys Town. In relation to music I was most influenced by my parents growing up. They both played music. My mom played steel drums and collected records and my dad, a self-taught musician, played everything by ear. Drums, piano, guitar, singer, songwriter. I learned to sing before I learned how to talk just from being surrounded by music so much. Definitely the first influence would be a lot of funk like the Gap Band, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Prince, Boy George, Cindy Lauper, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Fleetwood Mac. Coming of age, I became more influenced by listening to deejays on the radio. I was always fascinated by radio and mixing. We would have these dance parties at home with my mom and her sisters. When they would stay home with us–I’m sure that there were other things happening–but we’d be home and the nights that my mom would be home with us, me and my cousins and my younger brother and sister, we would just turn all the lights off, just have the radio lights on, and have dance parties in the middle of the room.

CC: How would you describe your childhood soundscape?

SW: There were always people in and out of the house rehearsing because my dad had bands when I was growing up. Our landlord ran a music studio in the basement of our house. We also had a small production setups for electronic music making, where I learned to play the keyboard by ear and took a liking to drum machines. We would spend some Sundays listening to full albums, me and my parents. My family always had a stereo system setup in the living room and it was a focal point for weekend activities for me.

Car sound systems and carnivals were common sounds because we were right by Humboldt Park. I would say that the thing that was really exciting for me was having my own radio. I would put it on my porch and play loud music. Also, being in cars with sound-systems. My dad always had a sound-system in the car. And the carnival. My mother took me to festivals all the time growing up, especially in Humboldt Park where we saw musicians like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. The carnival always had exciting music. Every ride had their own massive sound system. I just remember that feeling. I’ve always loved massive sound-systems. The feeling, the vibrations. I liked cruising the neighborhood, going to the corner store, but having the soundtrack with you all the time. We would get dressed up and drive to the corner store just to bump music.


Track 2: Sonic  Walls

Performance of Notation­of­notation


CC: You went to Columbia College for vocal performance. How did you think of vocal practice at this time? Were you already developing a larger practice around sound? What did you take away from that experience?

SW: When I was at Columbia, it was my first time being able to study singing. I studied some music in high school. I was in choir and then I had theory in grammar school. At Columbia I was able to design my own study program to focus on what I wanted, and at that time it was singing for my own projects. So I took theory, sight singing, songwriting, and then ensemble performance. Eventually I got into production, which I was also learning at home because my dad had the software. My sound practice started there. I was using the Max program to design my own synth sounds and editing samples in Pro Tools. These were the first electronic music classes in the department and there was a lot of push back because they felt that it was going to interfere with classical training. As you can see now, technology has been integrated and has broadened programs tremendously.

CC: While interning at Marwen, a non-profit dedicated to aiding the under-served through the arts, you started to experiment with sound in artistic exhibition. What influenced this transition?

SW: I took classes at Marwen as a high school student and started working as a teaching assistant while I was at Columbia. Once I graduated, I joined their staff working in development and eventually moved to the education department. I ran the alumni program there, producing exhibitions, managing a residency program, providing teaching opportunities and running an advisory board. During that time, I fell into deejaying, and I also fell into curating around the same time. It was kind of a natural progression. Since I also went through the program I knew a lot of people. At the time, a lot of my peers were coming back from college and starting to build new relationships, and I would help them put together their debut shows. I started programming music for each exhibition or bringing in a deejay or some kind of live music. The combination of music and art engaged audiences and provided a soundtrack to the experience of each exhibition. It kept me engaged in my work. The combination of music and art was bringing in bigger audiences. It was a different experience than having this quiet gallery atmosphere. I like noise and it’s just how I thrive. There’s something about sound and visual art that’s more engaging. So, I just felt like I was doing something that was right for me. I approached it like—‘you wouldn’t give someone a gift that you wouldn’t give to yourself.’ I didn’t start to really think about my practice in a more unified way until grad school.


Track 3: All’s  Fair  in  Love  and  Deejaying

I Wanna Rock­wanna­rock


CC: Your DJ career started soon after your graduation from Columbia in 2000, what sparked this interest? How did you learn? How would you describe your DJ practice in those early years? How has your DJ practice developed over the years? What do you like to play?

SW: I’ve always been around musically inclined folks, and a number of them have been DJs. I ended up in a serious relationship with a deejay and found myself with access to gear, allowing a space where I could play at my own leisure. I would make mix tapes and practice blending and choosing songs. I was thinking a lot about how to build relationships between songs, which takes some time. Also, learning how to record takes some time. There’s always some button or wire that’s, you know, unless you know what you’re doing you’re just fucking something up. Back in that time you had to have an external recording machine and track each track. And there are all of these things that you don’t have to do now to make CD’s. Eventually my partner caught on to what I was doing, and started booking me for gigs. The rest is herstory.


Track 4: Je  Suis  Jeune

You Heard Me­heard­me


SW: Ten years ago, in 2006, I was accepted to Ecole du Magasin, a curatorial program in France. This was a validating moment for me. When I got accepted to this program, I was like, ‘Oh, the work I’m doing matters in a larger context than I think it does—and more than anyone else is telling me.’ While participating in the program, I ended up singing in a manouche jazz band a deejaying…It was crazy.

Back at Marwen I was working with themes of gender, race and identity, and other sociopolitical issues. I had the same type of interests then as I do now, but I’m older and I feel like I can better navigate these conversations through intentional partnerships.


Track 5: Music  Box  Integration

A Study in Rhyme and Song: Then There Were None­there­were­none


CC: In 2014, you decided to go back to school and complete an MA in Sound at SAIC. What prompted you to go back to school? How has your time at SAIC expanded your practice as a sound artist and curator?

SW: Through this process, I asked myself questions like—Why am I working? Why does it matter? What can I offer to the conversation?—I didn’t just want to make shit to make shit. It took me a while to even consider myself a deejay. I would refuse to let people call me a deejay. It was a commitment thing—fearing that I was claiming something that I wasn’t ready to own for myself. I started thinking about sound more and going beyond deejaying because only certain deejays can work for the rest of their lives. I don’t know how long it would take for me to just play the music I like and be able to sustain a living. I don’t know that it would be satisfactory for me anyway—to just do that. I started questioning how I got into deejaying and why I was doing it. My motivation for work has evolved over time. So, coming to SAIC, in my mind, I was just going to separate things and just do sound art—whatever that meant. When I got to SAIC people who knew what I had already been doing were talking to me about integrating my practices, which took a while for me to process. I didn’t know what that meant or what it looked like—how does that function and is it possible? Through working with music boxes, there’s deejay technology, sampling to make loops, there’s composition, and there’s sculpture in building the boxes. And it’s also curatorial because I’m selecting specific songs to use. So, that was a starting point. Then I started going down the line of studying the history of minstrelsy because it had been an interest for me and helped me to understand my disenchantment with music that I had had as an undergrad—in that idea of having to be malleable and having to fit into a certain type of character to be successful. Looking at the pioneering of identity driven markets and connecting those ideas to children’s rhymes, street culture, and oral histories inspired my thesis project, “A Study of Rhyme & Song.”


Track 6: Have  You  Ever  Been  Experienced 

You know I’m no Good­know­im­no­good


CC: You’ve curated several exhibitions and shows during your time here at SAIC. A lot of your recent work–I’m thinking Hot 7: Chicago Brown and The Black Experience–deal directly with communities of the African and Latin diaspora. Can you talk a little about this work in its current socio-­political context, and what you hope that SAIC as well as outside communities take away from these exhibitions? 

SW: The Hot 7 exhibition is an exhibition that I’ve been working on for six years, and I’ve revamped it to try to fit these different institutional molds. Originally, I imagined the exhibition to tour outside of Chicago, but that didn’t happen. While I sat on the idea over the years, I thought about how this could be presented in Chicago and be reflective of local culture. Then I was presented with an opportunity to present an exhibition at SAIC. I featured all Latino artists and focused the exhibition on native Chicagoans and immigrant communities from Humboldt Park, Pilsen, and Little Village. There is often a divide in representation between accredited institutional artists and regional artists on the periphery. I’m interested in the space where those conversations overlap.

The Black Experience started off as a conversation about institutional experiences and providing an inter-generational support system. We reached out to the SAIC community in effort to highlight graduating black students and build a stronger community. We started having conversations with students at SAIC that seemed to be concerned about feelings of isolation and not having a connection in the community and also not knowing other students of color which is important.

Those conversations and feedback from people of color became useful. Also, having a showcase, getting to know one another across ages and disciplines, from undergraduates to graduate students to faculty. Staff was also important. We got a lot of support and it was well received by a lot of administration at school. I hope that it is something others will be inspired by—to do their own thing.


Track 7: Mestizo



CC: What types of internal and external socio­-political issues prompted you to get involved in working through the lens of identity and race?

SW: I have been thinking, and I’m still formulating my thoughts. But just growing up in different social and academic situations, just basic things like identifying yourself on a school form or applying for grants—the black and Latino experience is always being separated. You don’t always have the option of owning both in these spaces. I also think in the markets of education and art and entertainment it’s often the same. It has been a personal choice for me to embrace and own both spaces, and at times it has felt like an act of defiance. I am happy to see more social and academic work on this. I hope it in turn encourages others to embrace their whole selves to create more visibility and resolution on identity issues present in black and Latino communities that Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribs often face.

The conversations are extremely divided and it’s difficult for me to fit into one thing or the other. A lot of people are mixed and it still doesn’t seem to be acknowledged at all, which is crazy to me. It’s crazy to me when I see that mentality still being passed down to younger people. My conversation takes place in between.


Track 8: Age  of  Aquarius

Reframing Visibility­visibility­mix


CC: Singing, deejaying, curating, and sound art are the tools you use with which to convey your message and engage with various communities. What is next for Ms. Woods? And how do you imagine these platforms to continuously be drawn together?

SW: I have asked myself to focus on making meaningful work. I don’t ever want to make flaccid work. I’ve thinking about my voice and reconnecting with things that are exciting and resonate with me.

I would say the biggest lesson, and I’m still learning, is to continuously trust my process. You may not know the final outcome, but learning to let go is key. You don’t have control, but learning how to trust yourself and your instincts and integrating disparate things and reconnecting with one’s self has been a large focus for me over the past three years. I’m not great with public speaking, and sometimes I feel like I should keep my thoughts to myself. 

Learning through sharing has helped me realize that other people feel similarly to me about a lot of issues and I have embraced them more…once again, trusting yourself. Play. Also, saying ‘no’ is a lesson that never gets old.

CC: What’s your spirit animal?

SW: I’ve always been enchanted by seahorses. They represent balance of fe/male energy, adaptation, protectiveness, grace, being grounded, having clairvoyance. They are captivating.

  • with Courtney Cintron