Last week, Portland musician Ian Mouser was struck and killed by the driver of a pickup truck while bicycling in Arizona. He was pursuing his dream of cycling across the United States. Mouser was the founder of My Voice Music, which provides music lessons and recording opportunities to kids who would otherwise have none. We spoke to Mouser in January 2020, after My Voice Music had been awarded a $500,000 Lewis prize to expand his work. He was joined by Rayawnie Paris, an emerging hip hop artist who walked into a My Voice Music program at 17, and at 21 was one of the program’s teachers.

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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: I’m Dave Miller, this is Think Out Loud. The Portland musician and educator Ian Mouser was struck and killed by the driver of a pickup truck while bicycling in Arizona last week. He was pursuing a long-held dream of cycling across the United States. He was 42 years old.

Mouser was the founder of My Voice Music, which provides music lessons and studio time to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have access to those opportunities. We spoke to Mouser in January of 2020, that was after My Voice Music had been awarded the half-million dollar Lewis Prize to expand their work. Mouser was joined by Rayawnie Paris, an emerging hip-hop artist who was one of the program’s teachers. We thought we would listen back to that conversation today. I asked Mouser where the initial idea for My Voice Music came from.

Ian Mouser: The initial idea was born out of, I was working in a residential treatment with kids who were 9 to 12 years old, and they were in a lockdown facility until about a two-year process was over. I brought in my guitar as you mentioned, and a kid said “I want to write and record a song.” And over the course of about two weeks, I got a whole band together, taught them simple parts, it became a dynamic sound, and they performed at their talent show. And over those two weeks, their behaviors ended up improving a whole bunch, and I was hired to do that through the agency. Over time, I ended up expanding that into My Voice Music, where now we serve about 1,100 kids living in residential facilities, using the songwriting process to engage them.

Miller: Why the songwriting process? What is it, do you think, about music and about the particular expression of songwriting that has made this successful?

Mouser: Starting in residential treatment was a wonderful way to get around the understanding of this concept. Working in those facilities, every person that they interact with has a great intention of helping this young person, of fixing this young person, and helping them get back out into the world. And that means that every person has an agenda. And songwriting allows us to come in and just work with someone on a human level, eye to eye, without expectation, only to be there with someone, bearing witness to their story, at their own pace, however they want to choose to do it, whether it’s funny or it’s heartbreaking, or whatever that looks like. It’s a moment to recognize our common humanity in a time where humanity has been stripped from a young person.

Miller: Let’s listen to one of the songs that some of your participants created. This is called “Alien Hot Dog,” and it’s by a band that call themselves Pre-Amp II Jr. Let’s have a listen:

Pre-Amp II Jr. [to music]:

A long time ago

far, far away,

on an alien planet,

there was a hot dog stand.

[instrumental]

A long time ago

far, far away,

on an alien planet,

there was a hot dog stand.

[music fades out]

Miller: Rayawnie Paris, as I mentioned, you’re with us as well, a former My Voice Music student, now teaches for the program. When that started, you were sort of playing an invisible piano along with it. What does this song mean to you?

Rayawnie Paris: Oh my goodness. Well, it’s funny, I was part of the group when they created that, so the whole idea of Alien Hot Dog was just like the funniest thing ever, because they were making jokes all day about it. And so it was just like reminiscing back on a time that was just very funny.

Miller: How does a song like that come together?

Paris: Letting kids be kids and exploring avenues of what songwriting means, and getting to sometimes be serious, and sometimes make a song that doesn’t make sense to anyone else about you.

Miller: And that’s the category for this one? A little bit less serious, but it meant something to these young kids. How did you first find out about My Voice Music?

Paris: My mother, actually, she gave me information for the studio. And I kind of was just being lazy and didn’t do anything about it, and just kept bothering me and texting me for like four weeks, and was like, “Hey, hey, hey dude.”

Miller: You were already interested in music at that point?

Paris: Yeah, I was recording stuff in my house, but it was just like in my room, and it was very very very… not good.

Miller: So when you eventually went to this studio, which is much more like a professional studio, what do you find?

Paris: Well it was amazing. My first time was, it was like a hip-hop lab, open studio type thing. And so on the first day, we got a record and get inside an actual booth, and watch Luke mix your music live and add effects and vocal stuff, and so it was insane. I was like “Oh my gosh, where did this come from? What am I doing?”

Miller: How did you go from that to being a teacher?

Paris: I was constantly coming to record and just doing stuff like that, and then I just fell into working at the summer camp I think that same year. And then I just kept doing summer stuff, and then I stayed and just kept being there all the time.

Miller: Ian Mouser, how common is that? Young people who are first there as participants, as students becoming some of the leaders?

Mouser: Yeah, it’s really common. So I want to just say one thing off of what I had just said and what Rayawnie was saying is, at our studio and everything we do, the common basis is just having fun and just communicating over fun. And our studio is available to anyone from the public, regardless of their background, just based on their shared passion for music, whether or not they can afford to do it. So those kids come to the studio, and 25% of our staff members are now previous students. So anyone from 14 to 24 can join our leadership program and teach.

Miller: That sounds, that sounds different from the program you have to go inside various facilities that may be locked down. Can you describe how that part of the program works?

Mouser: Yeah. It was initially established because kids from facilities asked us if we had something to engage in when they left the facility. So from that, we just built more and more programs in response. And now it’s a public studio and music center for the public. So we run rock camps and we run hip hop programs, an open drop-in studio on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have weekly rock band songwriting groups that anybody can sign up for. You can pay full price, or if you want a scholarship, you just hit a link and you get to choose whether you want the full scholarship, 75%, 50%, 25% whatever it is.

Miller: Rayawnie, what do you want to do for, or with, the young kids that you’re helping now? What are you trying to do?

Paris: It’s funny because everyone’s all different ages and we’re all different sizes and statures, but we’re all kind of still on the same little road. So I guess just for me it’s more so just like following your passion, really authentically following your change, and what you want to do, because if you don’t, you’re not gonna really fully be able to do what you know you can do.

Miller: You all gave us another song that we could play for our audience. It’s called Alone. It’s by a group called Tender Steak Cross. Rayawnie, before we hear this, can you tell us about the making of this song?

Paris: Yes, this was summer camp, week three of this last year. A great band, all my students were actually around the ages of 13 and 12, and they really were amped up about songwriting. On the first day, because it’s a 5-day camp, so Monday, make bands, write things together, and so they were just very like, “we want to write about what it means to be you, and what it means to feel alone sometimes, and I don’t have that many friends.” They were just very open with talking to each other in this room in this space and expressing all these things that they’re going through at school and at home, and just being able to share that with other peers were like in their same age range and be comfortable.

Miller: Let’s have a listen and then there’s a lot more to talk about about this:

Tender Steak Cross [to music]:

Save me, I drive in a loop.

Maybe, I just want the truth.

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I don’t know what to do.

I need to find something new.

Save me, I drive in a loop.

Maybe, I just want the truth.

I don’t know what to do.

I need to find something new.

I never felt so alone.

Alone!

Miller: Raywanie Paris, do you think these kids would have been able to connect as quickly as they did if they weren’t working on musical partnerships?

Paris: I don’t think so, because I feel like when you open things up, especially with music- Everyone gets nervous sometimes about not sounding good and not being the best. And so when you make it an even playing field, that doesn’t even matter. You’re just here to enjoy that. It brings a whole different type of comfortability. It’s like a cloak, and so you’re enveloped in this safe space, that it’s okay to express what’s happening, and if you don’t want to that’s also okay. You can juggle both acts.

Miller: Ian Mouser, the pace at which this has grown is really something. When you started, this wasn’t your intention at first, it seems like you just wanted to give the kids that you were working with a little bit of entertainment one day, and that blossomed into what this is now. How has it grown so much? I’ve read that you served 2000 students last year. How has it grown?

Mouser: A great answer is responsively to our community, and I often say, accidentally. A good example of this is the first program we ran for the community, there were six kids and I thought those six kids would do a six-week program and leave. And what happened is those six kids never left, and when they turned 18, it became apparent that they were about to lose all of their services because many were in foster care. So we responded to that by launching a transition age program for 18- to 24-year-olds. So this growth has occurred mindfully, and strategically, and at the same time, in response to the needs of our community.

Miller: So let’s talk about the next steps of, as you say, mindful community-based growth. What are you planning to do with this half-million dollar prize over the next couple of years?

Mouser: We’ve got three projects that I’m really excited about, that the Lewis Prize for music is going to help to seed. The first is we’ve been working to move to East Portland. And we will now be able to begin construction of this building and hopefully move in by 2021, with a state-of-the-art studio, open to anyone from the public where other arts organizations can come in and collaborate with us. That’s in East Portland.

And then the thing I’m really excited about is to take all this information, over 15 years of my work and 10 years of My Voice Music’s work of going into institutions and using music, sharing that philosophy into what we call our Manualfesto, and then putting a facilitator in every residential facility in Oregon, is our aspiration.

Miller: Manualfesto. So half how-to, and half the big picture of why you do this, with the manifesto part.

Mouser: That’s exactly right.

Miller: So does that mean that you want this to grow in some ways without you? You want to explain what you’re doing, and have this pop up in other places around the state?

Mouser: Yeah, ideally in everything we do with kids, and anything, it’s to throw out sparks, and where the tinder is dry and right, it lights a fire. And we hope to do that in all sorts of communities throughout Oregon, and ultimately nationally.

Miller: Raywanie Paris, I mentioned that you’re not just a teacher in this program, but you’re also a hip hop artist in your own right, performing under the name [E]mpress. You put out an album recently, and you brought a track with you. We’re gonna listen to part of it. It’s called Last Home. Let’s have a listen.

[E]mpress [over music]:

Days getting flooded with grief.

Let it go, you’re allowed to be

so many versions of me,

it can be kind of hard to see.

Listen.

Feel the weight of the world,

shoulders concave.

Many shades formulate

hazy days, the skies are gray.

I’ve read this book before,

And this shit gets good,

Just turn the page

Every story and a journey,

yellow brick road paves the change.

You can’t tell me what is wrong

Open eyes, the same as broken seals.

It’s a briefcase, and I don’t really want to deal with

what comes next or after, but I probably will

set fire to any guilt.

Just for this, you were built.

[music fades out]

Miller: Do you think you would have been able to put out an album at the age of 21 if it hadn’t been for your partnerships with My Voice Music?

Paris: Not at all. It’s really hard, first of all, when you’re under 21 trying to pursue music in any aspect, in I guess any city, but I’m from Portland, so specifically for Portland for me and a lot of my friends. So when I was younger, it was always trying to find a place that would really let you be able to expand and do stuff like that. And so going to My Voice, having real studio equipment gear, and people who have gone to school for mixing and know all these things about how things work and actual education around these things. It’s not just you, keep watching videos or like trying to do stuff with friends. I don’t know, it would change a lot.

Miller: Ian Mouser, even if the young people you work with don’t become musicians, what do you hope that they’re going to get from taking part in this program?

Mouser: Music is amazing in all the things that research shows. But we could be skipping stones with kids. We want to share authentic human moments with young people and let them know that they are valued, and regardless of their past, they have something to offer the world that’s meaningful. Ideally, we’re providing a positive relationship with that young person. One single positive adult relationship with a young person is shown to be the most important factor in developing resiliency in young people. And that’s our first goal, is just letting young people find their voice and supporting that along a journey that we’ve all been on.

Miller: And as you say, not doing it from a position of, “Hey, I’m here to fix you,” but “I’m here to pay attention to who you are.”

Mouser: Dig it. That’s it.

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