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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Posted: September 23, 2014

Max Garcia Conover, musician, and Sophie Nelson, writer

Written by: Greta Rybus
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The goal of this blog has always been to interview strangers. I made a rule a long time ago not to interview my own friends. But rules are meant to be broken, I suppose. This week, my friends Sophie and Max are on the blog simply because I want you to know them. They both have immeasurable and unfolding talents: his, music, and hers, writing. Listen to Max’s songs (Sophie is on a few of his tracks now, too), and read some of Sophie’s writing. Take note of their names, because they are going places in this world. And, wherever you are in the United States, you could soon hear their music in person. Last week they left Maine to travel the nation in a cheap, clunker of an RV with minimal belongings and their lovable poodle named Arlo. As the seasons turn to fall and then to winter, Max will play about fifty shows across America.

 

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TELL ME ABOUT THE ADVENTURE YOU ARE EMBARKING ON

Max: We bought an dumpy, beautiful old motorhome and we’re taking it on the road for 14 weeks, playing 50 shows all over the country, going to places we’ve always wanted to go. And places we’ve never heard of.

WHY DID THIS TRIP FEEL SO IMPORTANT TO YOU BOTH?

Max: I think probably every performer dreams of doing something like this. I’ve been touring regionally for a year or so, and doing a big national tour together was something Sophie and I talked about, but in a much more distant sort of way. I’ve still got a ton of room to grow in the northeast and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do a national tour at this point. But a few months ago, things came together in what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of way. Everything from Sophie’s work and school to my new album to finding a ridiculously cheap, relatively fuel efficient, drivable house – all at once it seemed like we could make it work and we may not get another chance for a long time.

Sophie: I am currently studying (writing, really) fiction in a low residency MFA program. I’m also freelance writing. All of this means that I have more freedom in terms of time, and the flexibility to bring my work—paying and not paying—on the road. Even though it seemed, practically speaking, possible to pull this off, I was—and still am!—so scared. I think it feels important to me because it makes me scared and excited at once. I am not much of a risk taker. Beginning an MFA program seemed like risk enough for one year. But I just knew we wouldn’t regret this decision. I think there’s value in staying put, too, but my senses get a refresh from new sights and sounds and smells and that’s so good for my writing and my heart and my head. Plus, it’s a step toward my ongoing mission to be wilder. Since we just got married in June, it also felt like an opportunity to set a precedent for the kind of life we want to lead together.

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WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THIS CROSS-COUNTRY TRIP, WAS THERE A SPECIFIC MOMENT WHEN YOU SAID “YES! WE ARE DOING THIS!”

Max: I think it was in Rochester, New Hampshire, as we were first driving away in our noisy, waterlogged new home that we found on craigslist.

Sophie: Yep. It didn’t seem real until it was bouncing around behind us. I was terrified and thrilled out of my mind.

DESCRIBE THE LOGISTICS OF LIVING IN A TINY HOME WITH WHEELS

Max: We lived together in Taiwan in an apartment not much bigger than the motorhome, so the small space isn’t much of an issue for us. The biggest thing is learning how to be nomadic. Every day we have to think about where we’ll get water and power, where we’ll sleep, where our waste will go, where we’ll get food that’s cheap but still healthy.

Sophie: I’ve taken long, late-night walks for potable water, but Max has done most of the heavy lifting. For a while, something was going wrong with the thing about every damn day and Max was always finding a way to fix it. First it was the alternator. A couple of nights later, the roof leaked on us (for the first time) during a thunderstorm and he patched that up. The day after we sold our car, the RV wouldn’t start. Instead of freaking out I made the most delicious egg and cheese sandwiches ever. When Max got the RV going again after a very long hour, he actually beat his chest. He was joking, of course, but also a little bit not. It was ridiculous. The whole thing has been ridiculous, right down to our comically stereotypical gender roles in regards to the RV. I have actually been hand-sewing curtains! I wanted to make it really cute inside, like something out of Pinterest, but then I wanted to read and write more. Plus, the more money we spend now the more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we’ll have to eat later, and I’m already tired of those.

 

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MAX, WHEN DID YOU START MAKING MUSIC? WHAT HAS IT COME TO MEAN TO YOU?

Max: I started writing songs sort of out of necessity one summer in Puerto Rico. I had this idea when I was 20 that I’d go live there for the summer and make money by playing music on the street, but when I got there I realized the two songs I knew wouldn’t get me very far and that learning other people’s songs was really difficult for me. So I just started writing my own. I had wanted to be a writer for a long time but had never considered songwriting before that summer. Now writing songs is so intertwined with who I am and how I experience the world that I can’t imagine not doing it.

SOPHIE, WHEN DID YOU START WRITING? WHAT HAS IT COME TO MEAN TO YOU?

Sophie: Writing was always something I was fairly good at, but in eighth grade I had this great teacher who got me thinking about writing differently. Max was actually in the same class. We connected that year because both of us were taking ourselves and our assignments way too seriously. I still take myself and writing seriously because I think it’s fun and interesting. Writing demands a lot of thought and a lot of feeling, and I’m all about thoughts and feelings. Also, I write because I love to read, and reading makes me want to write. I like how literature – and art in general – forces us into gray areas. Certainty is important, but so is ambiguity and empathy.

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WHAT DOES YOUR CREATIVE WORK MEAN TO YOU?

Max: Songwriting has come to be how I naturally respond to things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be songwriting, but that act of responding feels essential to my life.

Sophie: Writing gives me a sense of purpose. It also fills me with doubt. But that’s not such a bad thing. Singing with Max also feels creative, but it’s more instinctual and collaborative and so different.

HOW IS YOUR CREATIVE WORK EVOLVING? HOW DO YOU THINK THIS TRIP MIGHT INFLUENCE IT?

Max: I just made an album that I think is a big step forward, where the songs are finally starting to sound like how I imagined my songs would sound. My friend and producer Ben Cosgrove helped a lot with that. I’m excited to play these songs every night and get better. I’m also so excited to see the country and for all the who-knows-whats that’ll happen and inspire the next batch of songs.

Sophie: I decided to send a character from the novel I’m working on on a road trip, because why not? Everyone is asking us what place we’re most looking forward to seeing. I’m not sure. I suspect I will be surprised by what I like and why. Max and I grew up in a rural part of New York State, so we’re not going to be freaking out about diners and dilapidated barns in general, but there might be a certain farm in a certain kind of light, or a fabulous sandwich. I’m looking forward to flatness, actually. Max and I recently stumbled upon a quote by Coleridge I plan to keep in mind: “There can be no great art without a certain strangeness.”

TELL ME ABOUT ARLO (THE DOG)

Max: She’s a sweet, fancy girl.

Sophie: She is fancy! And poodles are also lithe, thank goodness. She’s good at moving around the RV.

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WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?

Max: Good work and close relationships.

Sophie: The same things, which is probably a big part of what makes us a good pair.

 WHAT IS A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?

Max: There have been two cliches I’ve been repeating to myself many times a day amidst what feels like an onslaught of mechanical, logistical, and financial issues associated with this adventure. The first is that you really do win some and lose some. It’s easy to focus too much on the losses because they can be such a hassle, and it’s been really helpful to stay mindful of the many things that are going right. It’s amazing how things level out if you take the long view. The second is that everything is fixable. So many things have gone wrong with this old motorhome (batteries died, electrical system shorted, alternator died, starter failed, tanks leaked, roof leaked, fridge broke, etc.), but there is a fix for everything.

Sophie: Make sure the RV is level before turning on the fridge.

 

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WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST BLESSING OR GIFT RIGHT NOW?

Max: Having a partner in the fullest sense.

Sophie: I am safe and loved.

 WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST STRUGGLE RIGHT NOW?

Max: Figuring out how to make a go as an independent musician.

Sophie: In general, I care too much about what other people think, even people who I don’t have much respect for. That’s a weird thing.

 

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WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

Max: Hard to say. I think probably the downtime together after working hard is the happiest I am on an average day. But the work is essential to that feeling.

Sophie: Yes. The moment after I’ve been in some kind of zone and have something to show for it. Jogging feels good when it’s over. So does writing through a difficult scene.

 IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Max: “Gotta get the lead all out” is a phrase from a new Shovels & Rope tune that we’ve decided to make our anthem. And “Thanks Coach” every time our 1986 Toyota Coachmen starts up. We religiously pat and thank the RV every time it starts up. Thankful is such a great feeling.

 

To follow along with Sophie and Max: www.maxgarciaconover.com
 and www.sophienelsonwriter.com

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