Interview of Brian Laidlaw by Caden Rainey and Joel Nyland
February 17, 2022 conducted via Zoom
“WE HOPE YOU ENJOY OUR BLOG. WE SPENT HOURS EDITING OUR INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN LAIDLAW. WE LEARNED A LOT. WE CREATED THE QUESTIONS AHEAD OF OUR INTERVIEW. WE DID ALL OUR COLLABORATIONS ON ZOOM. WE SEND THIS BLOG OUT WITH LOVE”. ~JOEL NYLAND AND CADEN RAINEY
Caden: HOW DID YOU AND CHRIS MEET?
Brian: I first learned about Chris through his poetry, and he was a poet who I really admired. I had read his books and in fact, I liked his books so much that I taught them in some of the classes that I was teaching at the University of Minnesota. I assigned his books as required reading. My students would read them, then we would talk about his awesome books and write poems inspired by his work. Surprisingly, he moved from New York City to Minneapolis, where I lived at the time. I sent an email asking to get a cup of coffee and to chat sometime. He wrote back and said that he would be honored to hang out. I was going to see him as an artist I admired and as a fan, but we hit it off and ended up becoming great friends.
He ended up editing one of my books that were coming up for publication, and our friendship took off that way. Early on we started talking about the possibility of doing some work together and starting this organization together. It’s kind of crazy to think that taking that risk of putting myself out there just that one time was what set this whole company in motion, and if I hadn’t sent that email, none of this would exist.
A lesson there is that you have to put yourself out there from time to time and take a risk. That’s sometimes how great things happen.
JOEL: WHAT EXPERIENCES INSPIRED UNRESTRICTED INTEREST?
The way that Unrestricted Interest started was that before he moved to Minneapolis when he was living in New York, Chris had been doing some work with folks on the autism spectrum, mostly academic tutoring like helping with all different subjects for high school students.
He was working with a variety of students. And he said “My favorite is doing creative writing with folks on the spectrum; it’s so awesome. I wish that I could have a job where that was what I did all the time because I think it’s a really powerful tool to help people on the spectrum express their amazing inner worlds.
I had worked a little bit with folks on the autism spectrum when I was a camp counselor. Not a ton. I didn’t have a big background in it, but I did have a long background of being a creative writing educator, which was important in our sort of business partnership. Because of my own career as a songwriter, I had a background in how to start a business and how to do basic stuff like start an LLC, start to incorporate a company, how to make a website, and how to write advertising copy. Six years ago we put up a website.
We were kind of new friends, and we hadn’t known each other for very long. But we thought that this was something really special and cool and something that we wanted to devote our energy to, and so we just gave it a try, and we were really fortunate because it worked and took off.
CADEN: When did you start working together and why with nonspeakers?
We weren’t saying nonspeakers are the only folks that we want to work with; it actually wasn’t even specific to folks on the autism spectrum. It was just neurodivergent writers in general, and we were working with some when we first started. Then it was connecting the spellerverse and realizing that some of the coolest work that could happen was going to be work that was happening with spellers. I don’t want to speak for Chris on this front, but I think that one of the things I love most about working with spellers is that it takes so much focus to create language. It is like this mechanical process that takes such an amazing craft and such amazing thoughtfulness on their part to spell out the words that they want to say. Each word ends up having so much care and so much intention.
That idea of intentionally using language is the core of creative writing, and for spellers I think there’s a natural resonance with being poets and songwriters because spellers are accustomed to giving such thoughtful and meaningful attention to each word choice made.
JOEL: HOW DID YOU GET CONNECTED WITH I-ASC?
The connection started through one of Chris’s students who knew of EV (Elizabeth Vosseller) and I-ASC. It really was the Neurolyrical Cafe that started our relationship with I-ASC. Now it’s been going on for two years and it’s so fun, just the best thing in the world.
The universe expands with each new connection.
Caden: Who is your favorite artist, other than us of course?
In terms of songwriting and music there are a few favorites I always turn back to. Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Nico Case, The Mountain Goats, and Gillian Welch are some of my most favorite artists. Honestly, it’s no joke that spellers are writing some of my favorite songs that I’m aware of.
For poetry, there’s a poet named CD Wright who I really love, as well as Forrest Gander. Recently I’ve been loving a novelist named Claire Vaye Watkins, whose work I really admire a great deal, and John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats has started writing novels that I love as well.
I learn from the pieces that you write, and they are so inspiring to me in my own songwriting practice. The songs I write on my own are influenced and informed by the awesome ideas that spellers bring up in their tunes.
Joel: If you could write a song or poem with anyone at all, who would you choose?
That is a hard one to think about. I really love the songwriting style of David Rawlings, the guitarist who plays with Gillian Welch as well as a band called Old Crow Medicine show.I think I would get along with them musically. We have similar values and a similar sort of musical interests. Getting to work with you guys is a dream come true. That’s such a great question.
Caden: IF YOU COULD ONLY GIVE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Presume competence. I would give that advice not only to those in the nonspeaking community but to anyone who sets out to create something new. Presuming competence is essential in all creative endeavors. It’s about trusting your instincts and having self confidence. I write more effectively when I trust myself and believe in my abilities.
The idea of presuming competence is such a great way to enter an encounter with someone else. I would give that piece of advice to everyone, but presuming our own competence is a really powerful piece of advice as an artist. It gets back to this idea of taking risks and putting yourself out there. Allowing circumstances to unfold in ways that we can’t predict and feeling like we have the strength and capability to write it out as it unfolds.
We really do get back what we put into the world, and we always hope that others when they are first meeting spellers would presume competence, but it’s also important for spellers to presume competence when they’re meeting and interacting with neurotypicals. To sort of give those folks the benefit of the doubt by remembering that they may be having a new experience. So we want to give them the same respect that we hoped that they would give us.
Joel: I AM INSPIRED BY YOU. WHO INSPIRES YOU?
I am deeply, deeply inspired by the students that I get to work with. The thing that inspires me most is just the care that you all take with language. It inspires me to be similarly careful with my language and to treat language as something that’s precious. It teaches me never to take language for granted. And it teaches me to be grateful for the way that I’m able to use language. Such important lessons and all of that feeds back into my writing.
Caden: HOW DOES MUSIC CHANGE YOUR WORLD?
To me, especially recently, the world has felt very chaotic. Everything’s changing and the pandemic makes it so hard to predict what life is going to be like at any given moment. The way that music contributes to my world is that music gives a sort of beautiful sense of form and structure to feelings and emotions and events, so when I’m trying to make sense of the chaos around me, I turn to either my own music, writing new music or to music that other people have created that basically provides a sense of order in the middle of all the chaos. That to me is the great gift that music provides.
Additionally, music provides a more concrete way for me to connect with people and so many of my closest friends, some of whom you’ve met: my wife Ashley, my business partner Chris, my friend Ben. So many of the closest relationships in my life somehow revolve around music, so I’m so grateful to music as a way to meet new people and to connect with you guys to collaborate on stuff that I would never otherwise get to be a part of. Music is also this amazing way of creating a community, and that’s another reason that I love music.
CADEN: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT YOUR NONSPEAKING FRIENDS?
It’s almost impossible to pick just one. But I think that my favorite thing is that I know that I can never understand the fullness of the challenge that you guys have had in your lives, and especially the time before it was possible to communicate. Through language, I know that that’s something that even though I’ve written so many poems and songs with spellers about that experience, I know it’s something that I can never fully grasp. But I know that it must be just the most difficult and painful thing.
And what I love about my nonspeaking friends is that despite having come through all of that horrible time, you guys still have such positivity. You still have kindness toward one another, kindness toward the world, kindness toward yourselves, and kindness to me, and that is just the coolest thing in the world. That positivity and joy and delight in life remains intact, despite having gone through some really hard times and having challenges every day. It is just so so cool to see the joy, the cleverness, the wisdom, the delight, and the kindness that you all share and bring into the world. I think that to me is the thing that stands out most.
I think for me as a writer, I feel such a kinship with that, being joyful to be able to express yourself through language. I feel the same way.
I feel joyful every time that I’m able to use language to express myself, and I think that’s another way that I feel really connected to spellers even though my own experiences are different in a lot of ways.
JOEL: WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO LEARN FROM NONSPEAKERS?
Well, one, you learn the importance of being careful with language, treating language as precious. I think a lot of people use language thoughtlessly and recklessly.
Both in individual conversations, all the way up to media and government, and on the highest level of scale, the lesson is just to be mindful of the power that language has.
CADEN: WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU WANT NONSPEAKERS TO LEARN FROM YOU?
I think that sometimes there’s a feeling among nonspeakers that nobody is listening, or almost nobody is listening, but the truth is that there are a lot of people out there who really are wanting to know about your experiences and who believe in you, support you and who are rooting for you.
They want to hear these songs and poems. I think that it’s true that there may have been a time in the past when no one was listening or people were incapable of listening or understanding.
There are a lot of people out there who are really excited to learn the lessons that you have to share and to hear the stories that you have to tell, and I hope that you can really embrace that and be excited about the fact that there is an audience for what you’re doing, and it does matter to lots of people.
People are paying attention. I think that the pandemic has meant that people are spending more time interacting on zoom and in ways other than in person.
As a result, there are more ways for speakers and nonspeakers to connect with one another. I think a lot of the time that feeling of a disconnect was not even because of people being unkind. It was just that those interactions weren’t necessarily happening that often.
We can start inviting people to come and listen to something like the Neurolyrical CAFE, or Boards and Chords, or Motormorphosis, all of these awesome events. Then people are finally having an opportunity to understand, to learn, to start becoming involved, and to get to know this awesome community that you guys are a part of. It’s really, really exciting.
Part of the job that your songs are doing is helping educate people and helping them gain that understanding so that when they do come into these interactions, they can be entering with a productive mindset. It’s really cool.
JOEL: WHAT DO YOU HOPE YOUR LEGACY WILL BE?
I would love to have a legacy like folklorist Alan Lomax who, in the early to mid-1900s was traveling around the world recording folk songs. In all these little towns that he was passing through, he had a portable recording setup, and he went around and recorded people’s music that was only shared by word of mouth like songs sung in churches, prisons, fields, and on porches. He built up this amazing archive of folk songs that might have been lost because they weren’t written down or recorded anywhere else. They weren’t notated, they weren’t in print, and they only existed in people’s minds. Alan Lomax went around and made it possible to share those incredible songs with other people who would never otherwise have gotten a chance to hear them.
I want my legacy to be similar to Alan Lomax’s. I want to collect songs that other people might otherwise never have had a chance to hear because they’re not written down or recorded. They exist only in minds. I want to be a collector of songs written by others like Alan Lomax. My hope is that my legacy will be the songs that I’m writing with spellers and helping to be someone who creates this archive of work that might not otherwise have been shared. I hadn’t ever thought of that comparison before. I’m really glad that you asked that question because it really gave me a chance to think about it in a new way.
CADEN: HOW CAN PEOPLE INTERESTED IN UNRESTRICTED INTEREST LEARN MORE ABOUT IT?
Thank you for asking. We’ve got a website where folks can check it out at www.unrestrictedinterest.com or they can send an email to email@example.com. Those are probably the best ways to connect. We’re definitely always excited to meet new folks and dream up new collaborations.
Born in Japan Joel Nyland is a Pacific Northwest songwriter. He spells to communicate. His biggest wish is that nonspeakers, unreliable speakers and minimally speaking people be heard.
Caden Rainey “Super speller, nonspeaking self advocate”