Naomi Yang is best known for her musical work in bands like Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi. Now, she has released her first-ever documentary, titled Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody, accompanied by a soundtrack that marks Naomi’s first-ever solo release. KEXP’s Janice Headley spoke with Naomi about how these projects came together. Check out the transcript or listen to the segment below.
Naomi Yang didn’t set out to film a documentary…
Naomi: It wasn't something I decided, "I'm going to go make a documentary." I just started filming. And I started noticing these things, and I was trying to figure out how to pull them together. And it turned into this personal documentary.
The Boston-based artist has had a long career as a musician, first with Galaxie 500 and currently as half of the duo Damon & Naomi. She’s also an accomplished photographer and graphic designer. As a filmmaker, she’s directed music videos for Sharon Van Etten, Waxahatchee, and Julia Holter, to name a few. And in 2013, she directed her first short film, titled Fortune, which screened at MoPop, back when it was called the EMP.
With her latest project, the film Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody, she can add “documentarian” to her long list of credits. And it was just happenstance that it came to be. Naomi tells us she was scouting locations for a video when she came across Bartolo's Boxing Club in East Boston.
Naomi: I was trying to convince Sal, the boxing trainer, that I was trustworthy and not going to be mocking him or his gym when I wanted to use it as a location for this fashion video I was working on. And so I decided to take the free class he offered, so we could get to know each other.
And it really was the moment he started showing me about sparring and I felt so... frozen. Because I couldn't respond. He was saying "punch me, punch me here in these pads," as like a boxing exercise. And because I couldn't do it, I think it was really that moment, when the fact that I couldn't do it, that it made me feel like I just, I have to figure this out.
I think of myself like, I'm such like a goody two shoes about things. If someone asked me to do something, I do it, you know? It was like, here he is asking me to do this. I want to do this. And I just can't. I literally was just like, I can't do it. I can hit. Sure. And I certainly knew my own personal history with, you know, domestic violence. I don't know if I thought it was connected at the moment, but I certainly recognized that paralysis. And so I just felt like I had to continue it.
It wasn’t long before Naomi became addicted to boxing. She kept going back to Sal’s gym, first once a week, then twice a week, and the next thing she knew, she was going five nights a week.
During her frequent travels to East Boston, she began to explore the neighborhood, bringing her camera along. A transit stop caught her attention, a stop for Wood Island.
Naomi: I mean, it literally was that kind of random thing that we all can do now on our phones where it's like, "Huh, that T Station's called Wood Island. I wonder why. There's no island, like, what island do they mean?" And so then when I got home, I randomly looked it up. And then I started reading the history of it. I was like, That's crazy. That's such an interesting history. So, it was sort of just being there and just being curious and just finding out more and more about the neighborhood.
She discovered that there used to be a “Wood Island Park” where the transit stop is now located. But, sadly, most of the park was destroyed to accommodate the expansion of Boston’s Logan Airport.
It is loud in that neighborhood, as Seattleites living near Boeing Field or Sea-Tac can relate. Planes fly so low that one neighbor had his TV antenna knocked over. The neighbors noticed Naomi standing outside with her camera and began introducing themselves, sharing their stories of growing up so close to the airport.
She started to see a thread tying Sal’s gym, this neighborhood, and herself together.
Naomi: I tell people, I'm working on this film project and they'd be like, What's it about? And I'd be like, I cannot tell you in one sentence. It's about the airport, it's about fighting back, it's about learning boxing. It's about airport expansion, you know. And my personal history.
So it was in the writing of the script, which took me a very long time. It was like 20 pages long. It was sort of a puzzle, and I was like, Oh, I see these things that intuitively felt like they went together and I was just interested in.
Watching the film, I thought of a braid, and these three strands of stories woven together to create something beautiful. Sal’s personal story, carrying on the family tradition of boxing. A woman named Mary Ellen Welch who led protests against the Logan Airport expansion, unveiling the negative health impacts to its residents. And then Naomi herself, bravely sharing her complicated family history. The film captures these stories of self-defense.
The documentary also marks the first time Naomi has recorded music on her own. The soundtrack to Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody features seven dreamy ambient synthesizer tracks. I asked Naomi about composing the score independently.
Naomi: I wasn't planning it as my first-ever solo release. It ended up being that after the fact. I just knew that some of the sequences needed some music, and here I am and I have keyboards and I have a computer. Fortune, which was the silent film that you saw, that was very much like a Damon & Naomi project where it's very guitar-based and coming out of riffs and songwriting.
And I have been listening, the last few years, to a lot of instrumental music, a lot of ambient music, a lot of soundtracks. I wanted to just see what happened when I plugged my keyboard to my Apollo solo machine here and went direct. Damon was horrified. He was like, "You're just going to go direct into your computer? Don't you want me to mic it? Don't you want to use your amps? We have this beautiful microphone." I was like, Nope, I'm just going to go direct because I just want to work this way. I don't want to do the whole studio thing.
And I really enjoyed it. You know, I taught myself some very basic audio mixing, because Damon has really been doing all of that for us in our home recordings. And yeah, it was really fun. And it was a really nice thing, doing some music without the pressure of having to write lyrics. Because for us, lyrics have always come last. Like, maybe we might have some idea of melody, but lyrics... It was very freeing to try and find all the emotion in the musical expression. And I don't know why. It just feels like lyrics are really something that I'm not so interested in right now.
In the end, there’s no victory run up a flight of stairs, no fists pumping in the air. In Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody, we see that just fighting back is a victory in itself.
Naomi: The end took a long time to think about. I wanted to have it be real and not have it be the arc that is in so many boxing films and action films. Also, the fact that that's true with activism. It's not just like this victory. There's still stuff to keep fighting the good fight. You can have these moments of victory or of understanding, but it doesn't — like things don't just change. You have to be constantly trying to keep the world from falling apart.
I asked Naomi, can she punch back now?
Naomi: Yes, absolutely. It was sort of a slow start. But now, yes, totally. I love sparring now. It’s really fun.
You needn’t be an audiophile snob to conclude that today’s MP3 downloads, or their streaming counterparts, sound worse than 1965’s LPs - MP3s are designed to sound worse. It’s a crucial part of what enables them to be so portable, cheap (if not free), and ubiquitous.
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