Something Bigger Than Myself: Emily Boyajian Talks With Mikey Marget

Emily Boyajian [left] and Mikey Marget. Photo Sarah Whiting

For our January 2024 issue, Minnesota Women’s Press asked four artists to choose another artist they know and have a conversation. We offered them a set of questions about art, work, and the creative life, and asked them to record themselves and send us the audio file. The following story is an edited transcript of an hour-long conversation. Find more stories from the “Artists on Artists” issue here.

Mikey Marget (they/them) is a cellist and singer-songwriter who plays traditional Scandinavian music, Americana, and folk. Emily Boyajian (she/her) is a pianist and composer of classical music with influences from musical theater, jazz, and folk.

Emily: As a kid, I assumed that you were either a famous artist like Beethoven or the Beatles, or you didn’t create art in any meaningful capacity as an adult. And now I’ve learned that there are a lot of artists who are doing really interesting, powerful work on a smaller scale. Even if they aren’t internationally known, they are still making an impact in their local communities and making art that’s enjoyed by other people.

Mikey: I feel the same. When I was starting out, I started in a classical context, so I thought that being an artist was being in a symphony and playing on huge stages. And now, playing with local bands is really fun and engaging. Getting integrated into the local music scene was important for me.

Emily: How do you decide when a piece is finished?

Mikey: My musical process is really intuitive. I like to play through things rather than think about them too much beforehand, so it’s a lot about what feels good to play and sing, and then I craft the structure after. I don’t think that music is ever done. You can record something, release it, and it’s still not done even though you have that product.

Emily: I make my best work after I have more distance from the initial thought process that sparked the piece.

Mikey: I just released my first single. When I listen to it, I’m thinking, “Man, I should have cut that bar of guitar out, I hate that now.” But other people don’t hear that.

Emily: Other people aren’t listening as closely as you are.

Mikey: Yeah, it’s a totally different experience to listen to music for enjoyment than it is to listen to music as someone who’s crafting it. There’s still magic in it, but we pull it apart, which can be challenging.

How does money impact your creative life?

Photo Sarah Whiting

Emily: I like having a day job because I can take longer to write a piece and not worry about funding my rent and food bills. I can choose to play gigs that I enjoy, and I can have the freedom to take a month away from performing to compose a piece or to wait until I feel inspired.

Mikey: I have a lot of friends who have a day job and do music on the side. I think I’ll probably do that at some point in my life, but I’m a freelancer right now, so I make money through music alone. There’s pros and cons. If you’re just doing freelancing, you have to take all the gigs, whatever comes your way. Sometimes I wish that I had more freedom to focus solely on my own stuff. But I love being able to play with a variety of bands and people.

Making music is also expensive. There are hidden costs related to distribution and streaming platforms that I didn’t know about. It’s expensive to make art, and you don’t make a lot of money from it.

Emily: Even if the money isn’t good, I’ll still enjoy having my pieces heard by audiences, with real people playing them. Even if I have to lose money by paying performers, I’m still happy. I can feel a part of something bigger than myself.

Mikey: At the show you recently organized featuring queer and trans composers, there was an interlacing of communities — that was special. Money is part of it, but those human connections are the most important thing.

What role do you think your identities play in your work?

Emily: I’m transgender and I’ve written songs, including a half-hour song cycle, about the transgender experience — both the fun parts of living authentically and the hard parts of facing transphobia.

Even in songs that are wordless, I still try to convey emotions that I have felt while navigating life as a trans woman.

Mikey: I like how in that song cycle you were exploring trans identity, but also all of the other webs of emotion that happen alongside it. The identity question is tough, because it’s not just one thing.

Emily: Yeah, I’m trans, but I’m also a person who has my own experiences. I’m neurodivergent. I have multiple identities. Each trans person has their own experience and narrative. It’s worth hearing.

Mikey: I really admire that you have done explicit work about your identities. I’m nonbinary, and neurodivergent, and I haven’t written explicit work zooming in on those things, but I feel like they’re interwoven into everything that I make just because I’m making it. If I’m writing a love song, it’s a queer love song, but I haven’t done a lot of explicitly queer writing.

Photo Sarah Whiting

That identity question is a tough question to answer. I feel like we both talked about identities that are easy to flatten. But I’m also a goofball, a performer, an artist. There are just so many aspects of identity, and of course it’s going to be relevant to the art that you make because that’s what art is — an exploration of identity, either yours or your relationship with others’.

How do you nurture your creative spirit outside of the work of making art?

Emily: I go to concerts two or three times a week. Occasionally I’ll think about the chord progressions and structure more carefully. That can be good for learning, more in the mind of an academic rather than a listener. Being a newcomer to a genre, I can be inspired in a more innocent way.

Mikey: Sometimes when I go to a show I think,“If I was on stage, I’d be doing this, or in this moment a cello could play this” — composing as I’m watching. If you go to a show where the genre is totally different from your own, you don’t have to put yourself in the band, you can just enjoy the music.

Do you make art for a particular community?

Emily: In the future I want to collaborate with artists who are doing non-classical music. Even though classical music is known as a more upper-class, white genre, there are classical composers doing incredible work who are poor and BIPOC. I want to make classical music more inclusive and equitable, and help it become a less isolated genre.

Mikey: I make art in a lot of communities. That’s part of being a freelance musician — people will find you and hire you. Having a musical skill set, you get to branch out into different spaces and make connections that you would not otherwise have made.

Mikey Marget released their first single, “Draped in Gin,” in October. It can be found on all streaming platforms. Emily Boyajian is organizing a showcase spotlighting queer composers of all genres in spring 2024 and is seeking participants.