Cities and States – Interview

Matthew Hoy
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Recently I was privileged enough to speak to Joshua from the indie music duo, Cities and States. The duo comprises of Joshua Richard (26) of Salem Massachusetts and Samuel Holdship Brown (27) of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Whilst Joshua works with his father in the family trade of hardwood flooring his artistic partner in crime Samuel is currently working on a photographic art project focussing on gender, Freud, and butoh dance with Maria Emilia Escudero in Quito, Ecuador. His photograph is from that project.

When did you start making music, and why?

I first started making music midway through high school, teaching myself bits and pieces on the guitar. From there I picked up other instruments like bass, piano, and drums, and once I got a computer I was able to dub together a band of my own. Being a musician appealed to me at a very young age when I heard the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ever since then I’ve been chasing down a dream. There is also a lot to be said for the way music forms positive habits and a creative sense of self-esteem. I identify with it and in turn it’s helped me grow.

Where is the name “Cities and States” from and what is its meaning?

I came up with the name “Cities & States” back around 2005 when I was listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens. His music is superb and he plays a million instruments so I definitely looked up to him early on in my career. But mainly the concept of the ’50 States’ project inspired me. I heard he wanted to write an album for every state in the USA and that impressed me. Also “Cities & States” is nondescript, and I like things plain.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your music?

In terms of songwriting, I try to absorb as much as I can from listening to records and then recreate that experience through interpretation. I try to adhere to a common structure or formula in my music, though it may get turned upside down and backwards at times. The lyrical content is either directly related to an incident I have experienced, or the complete and utter nonsense spewing from my imagination’s monologue. Probably both of those two things at the same time.

Where did the title of your album, ‘Straight Jacket’, come from?

The title “Straight Jacket” was chosen for a number of reasons. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year, and Sam was diagnosed with the same disorder a year prior. He reached out to me instantaneously and became a best friend, if not my guru. During this period I struggled with the deep depression that replaces bipolar mania, a euphoric but detrimental break with reality. I wanted to stop playing music because of the hand tremors I experienced on medication. This album was a project I undertook with the mindset of, “I want to overcome this feeling of failure and shame”. I had no choice but to accept a part of myself I didn’t want or recognize–I was confined to a stereotype. Luckily, I’ve learned that mental illness is quite a special thing, and I was a victim of misconception all along. “Straight Jacket” was music therapy throughout my recovery, and I was able shed (some of) my shackles of doubt. So, the title is a direct and personal reference to being bipolar, but I suppose it has just as much to do with the freedom that comes with redemption.

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Please explain the cover art for this album? What message do you hope to bring across through this? Does it relate to the ongoing struggle for marriage equality in the USA or is it perhaps a mockery of marriage?

The album art is a random concept that we decided to explore. Over the phone one day, Sam mentioned that he bought a gorgeous wedding gown at a thrift shop for his drag persona “Madeinusa”. We thought it would be clever to have filmmaker/photographer J Parker Russell IV take shots of us dressed as bride and groom; Sam in the gown and I in a penguin tail tuxedo belonging to his great-grandfather. For the setting, we chose an old estate outside of Pittsburgh where the proprietor also taught Sam coping techniques from the “More to Life” program during his own post-traumatic state, which Sam passed down to me during mine. By changing your internal language from “I need” or “I must” to “I want” or “I can”, you create a more loving environment for yourself and open up a greater possibility for success. Positive language helps keep you in touch with the present moment and to be at peace with the status quo. A possible message to take away from the artwork is to celebrate the fortune of love and friendship, and to honour your own definitions of each. The album cover actually is about marriage, though in the sense that Sam and I became very close over the year. The photo shoot was the commemoration of our bond in brotherhood, almost as two young boys cut their hands to become blood brothers. Our intention was neither to make a mockery of marriage nor take a stance on marriage equality, at least not intentionally. Besides, the institution of marriage has mocked itself enough. I believe everyone has the right to marry, and to discriminate against gays over the legality of love and union is terribly hypocritical. Pittsburgh recently legalized gay marriage in May 2014, but at the time of photo shoot it was illegal.

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Would you explain the metaphor used in your opening track of being “and we were a piece of cake, in the middle of the floor”?

The lyric “and we were a piece of cake, in the middle of the floor” in “Piece of Cake” may refer to a few different things that are certainly applicable to relationships. Falling in love is sometimes easy as pie, but conversely, something as fragile as a human relationship is bound to carry with it some sort of impending tragedy. If a perfectly delicious piece of cake fell on a clean floor most people would just throw it out. What a waste!

Circumstances seems to tell the story of a young couple who have rushed to the alter and tied the knot to only find out later how much of a struggle it is, and how little the pair know one another, what experience inspired this?

The story behind “Circumstances” is based on a recent experience of mine, altered slightly to account for meter and rhyme. As a result of my mental deterioration a relationship screeched to a halt. I was confused, angry, and still wildly smitten. I wanted to convey a message along the lines of “We really misjudged each other, didn’t we?” Miscommunication slowly wreaks havoc, and I’m looking at the path of destruction, describing a memory of life before wartime. I was particularly proud of myself after writing this because to me, the music, lyrics and emotion all hover in the same space. I was frustrated and I think I captured it.

Ostrich is an interesting track, it seems to be a song about facing the issues of a troubled relationship instead of turning a blind eye, what was the toughest hurdle you have experienced in a relationship?

“Ostrich” is about meeting someone new and realizing you don’t have to hide from yourself or your past. It’s best to give in, succumb to blossoming love and let it smooth out your imperfections instead of keeping your head in the sand. Everyone is juggling with disappointment in some way and I felt humbled by the perspective I gained from her. I admire people that carry on. This specific person assured me that I was moving forward, not standing still.

Sex Appeal has a deceiving title as we are expecting this raunchy track so it comes as a shock when it actually looks at life’s journeys and how tough the road is, but also how a healthy relationship acts as a constant, comforting social structure. Was this the intent?

“Sex Appeal” has a lot of dark elements, but really the message behind the song is much lighter. My basic intent was to write a personal song about attraction and the moment you vocalize it. Infatuation is a strong force, so much that it can make you forget the curveballs life has thrown you. You forget your fear of failure and take chances for your own happiness. I ran into a girl I used to date and it was as if we still had the same chemistry as before. She made me feel calm, and I recognized a vulnerability I hadn’t felt in a long time. Sure, healthy relationships are a comforting social structure, but they’re also necessary for progress in general. With the proper friend, lover, or spouse, life becomes more fruitful.

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What is the ultimate aim of this album?

I want someone to hear this album and purposefully make a copy for his/her friend. I want to continue to play these tunes with my friends in bars or clubs, and meet a lot of like-minded people along the way. I love 60’s pop, jazz, punk, and hip hop, and “Straight Jacket” is a little love letter to those inspirations. I hope it reaches a wide audience because I try to pull from many different genres. You’re bound to hear something you like. Oh, and I hope it captivates a generation.

What is your view on Equal Marriage in the USA? Why do you think it has become such an issue?

For starters, I think that the issue of Equal Marriage, at least around Boston, is looking up. I’m proud to say that Massachusetts is a big proponent of gay rights and has led a fine example thus far. It’s become a greater issue because people who oppose gay rights are bound to their own closed-mindedness. They’re brick walls and defend their personal beliefs with as much fervor as an equal rights activist. But I think as a country the United States is making progress not only with gay rights, but women’s rights too. If the credence of my country is defined by acceptance and equality, it’s about time we start honoring those basic human truths.

I believe that one of you is straight and the other is gay, explain the dynamics of your friendship? Do you think it’s perhaps better to have a gay best friend and vice versa a straight best friend seeing as you aren’t fighting over the same guy/girl? What does this dynamic add to your life if anything?

I’m straight, Sam is gay. The main dynamic in our relationship is a mutual understanding. We’re on the same wavelength in terms of creativity, philosophy etc, and we inform each other’s artistic sensibilities. Having a gay friend, in my opinion, is great. In general, I’ve never felt I had to compete with my friends for girls, and quite the opposite, Sam has an energy that draws you in. A zest. If there’s anyone who would introduce me to the prettiest girl in the room it’s Sam.

And so now I encourage you to take a listen to this amazing piece of musical genius. Go to and download this amazing album.

About Matthew Hoy

Matthew Hoy is currently studying to become a Chartered Accountant. Despite the popular belief that accountants lack creativity, he has a creative side and is passionate about writing and inspiring people. He has a love-affair with music and weird novels. @Matthew_Hoy