Listening to the artist known as Karen’s version of Morning Sun by loner psych folk artist Dave Bixby was nearly as striking as the first time I heard the original. I was listening to an algorithm-generated playlist when I was suddenly struck by the poignant lyrics and haunting vocals, and now, here I am writing for his magazine. I listened to Karen’s version on a whim, without any forethought, and soon tears were streaming down my cheeks unwittingly. Dave Bixby’s lyrics are so strikingly evocative, but repackaged with Ana’s stunning vocal treatment adds this element of beauty that makes the song almost unbearably beautiful.
Karen is a multimedia artist who developed the first research of Outsider Art in Mexico, and her reasoning is fascinating. As someone who connected with Outsider Art, she soon realized that these artists could be hiding in plain sight, and they could be members of a largely neglected and marginalized community. Her fascination with Outsider Art expands from visual artists to encompass Outsider Musicians, which is what drew her to the music of Dave Bixby. She also makes cumbia music as part of Karen y Los Remedios.
In addition to her music career, she is part of the directive community for academic magazine Bric-à-Brac, and is an image advisor of the educational movement and civil association Clubes de Ciencia Mexico. She’s currently a PhD student “Arts Therapy and Alternative approaches in human services” where she studies creative process through qualitative and computer science tools focusing in people under the Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Schizophrenic Spectrum Disorder. Karen also conducts art-based and art therapy workshops for women and children in rural communities and people with behavioral, developmental, psychological, and cognitive disorders.
I chatted with Karen and asked her about her curiosity about outsider artists, how she found Dave’s music, and what’s next in her musical career.
Lara: Can you tell me why you chose this song in particular?
Karen: It’s one of my favorite songs. When I discovered this album, Ode to Quetzalcoatl, long ago, I was starting university. It makes me feel really happy, but also sensitive, and I liked to sing it by myself. I wanted to make a version of this song because I really love the melody and the feeling of David’s voice in the song.
L: How did you find Dave’s music?
K: I think it was suggested to me on YouTube. I was reading about how he made the album, and I’m interested in this type of music that is not totally mainstream and it’s not perfectly recorded. I really like outsider music, and I thought that this is a little bit like this, and I felt the connection with Mexico. I thought it was really interesting, and I really liked the album. Back then, it didn’t have a lot of views, so I was really feeling like, “Oh, I’m discovering something.”
Then I was researching him and I found his Facebook profile and I was like, “Oh my God, it’s him,” and I decided to add him on Facebook. When you discover something and you really want to know more, or find out if there’s a community. That part of my life, I’ve discovered a lot of gems, and I think David was one of them.
L: You’re currently earning your PhD in outsider art, is that correct?
K: I’m doing research related with outsider art. Now I’m focusing mostly on art made by people with autism and schizophrenia, but before, I made our research about outsider art in Mexico.
L: What intrigues you about outsider art?
K: I think this is something similar with the type of music that I have found in my past. I think it happened to me with outsider art. I found this artist named Henry Darger, [who was a hospital custodian and incredible novelist and artist]. I thought it was really honest, and that it was simply made by the necessity of making art, not just to have a high recognition. I think now I’m realizing that most of the music that I really like, it has something similar. It’s something really honest, really authentic. I think the intention of making the art is what had made me more attracted to outsider art, that it doesn’t have a pretentious intention. That’s what I like the most.
L: Can you tell me a little bit more about your research into art therapy, and how music particularly is a therapeutic tool?
K: I first started being interested in outsider art, and for some reason, I was talking to some homeless men in Guanajuato, where I studied. I thought, “Oh, these men could be an outsider artist.” I think just because, in Mexico, we don’t have a lot of information, and museums, and it was really difficult to find any biography on these artists. I started to feel like, “Oh, probably these people could be outsider artists, but they’re not because we don’t know.” That’s how I started. Because of the lack of information in Mexico, I went to make a research stay in Spain, where I found more people interested and it was in my language.
I realized that there was a way to make this stuff, and I started to collaborate in workshops. They were not really related with art therapy, but it was more to make them artists, so I was really attracted in the research stay. I made it in the Faculty of Education, but it was a master in art as a social art therapy with social inclusion. I started to get more involved with workshops, but I discovered that I really like this part of making art, with not just totally therapy. It’s obviously therapeutic because it’s art. Then I found it for myself too, in the workshops that I started making, I was doing some drawings and narrative and making photography collaboration, but also doing some experiments with music.
I really liked that part too. For myself, I think writing and making songs was one of my first tools to express my feelings when I was sad. I remember writing my first song was when I was around 15 years old, and I was heartbroken, but I never show it to anyone. I spent a lot of time without showing my music to anyone because it was something for me, as well as drawing and photography. Later on, I started to showcase my art. It’s been a good tool and lately I’ve been working on it so it sounds more professional. Before, I used to record with my computer, and I really liked that raw part, but then I met some people that are more serious, so I started to make music that sounds more serious.
L: Did you record this song on your own, or with other people?
K: No, with other people. Last year, I was really lucky because I was surrounded by musicians. I started living in a place with my boyfriend last year. A couple moved in at the beginning of the year, and one of them is a really good musician who has a studio. My boyfriend helped me with the guitar, and then our friends with the recording. We were having ideas and it was a really fun and interesting process. Then, when I told them the story about David, they were pretty excited because they were like, “Oh, it’s like a Sugar Man,” you know? I was like, “Yeah, it is.” They liked the songs and they’re really professional, so they helped me a lot.
L: Cool. Are those guys different from your regular band, because you have another band, right?
K: Yeah, but before, I used to make some projects that were more guitar and acoustic and more raw recorded. I used to live in China for around three years, and I’m still doing my PhD online from the Hong Kong university. When I was there, I was missing a lot Latin rhythms. I used to come here to Mexico for one month, and I would call up my friend to tell them I was coming to the city and ask them to meet up to make music. Then, when I came from China, probably I was super empowered, and I’d tell my friend, “We need to make cumbia.”
That time, he was doing some soundtrack for a documentary about cumbia, and we started to make songs. By December 2019, I was visiting Mexico randomly because there were a lot of protests in Hong Kong, so that’s why I left Hong Kong around November. Then I went to Spain to do some stuff for my research, and then I went to Mexico and we had a little concert. Then we were making more songs, thinking that I was going to go back to China in January, but then COVID-19, and I’m still here.
At the beginning, I was like, “Oh no, I won’t go,” and right now I’m like, “Oh, I don’t want to go from Mexico.” I will have to go eventually, but now I’m trying to push my stay here, even if they’re pressuring me a little bit there. Now the project music praise is getting better, now we’re making more songs, and has a lot of Latin roots, mostly cumbia. That’s basically the story, but before, I used to make other type of music, really different from what I’m doing now, but I’m enjoying this part too.