It was a cold grey day when we went to visit the shop and creative headquarters of Brooklyn Lutherie, but the smell of wood dust and tea, and the resonant quality of a well-loved instrument warmed the space of musical doctors, Mamie and Chloe. From a small community of boat builders to the diverse streets of Brooklyn, these two have forged the perfect balance of impassioned creative craft, and a value for the simple joys of life. Read about their journeys through self-discovery and the stories of the instruments they repair….
Nativen: If you can just start off by telling me where you’re both from that'd be awesome.
Mamie: We're from opposite sides of the country. I'm from Delaware. I Grew up in Wilmington. I was born a little bit south of there in Virginia. My parents were, …actually we both have parents who are sailors.
Mamie: My folks, my mom and dad built a boat in the years before I was born. I was the third kid and they were like, "What are we going to do? Three children.” They started a ‘green’ building business in Delaware, so I basically grew up in Wilmington, Delaware.
Chloe: I'm from Washington state, from a small boat building community. Victorian seaport, as they like to call it… Port Townsend. Small town life - close to Canada and it's out on this peninsula, so it attracts all these wacky artists. So I had a lot of really powerful people to look up to and mentor me.
Nativen: You obviously both come from some sort of a building background. Do you think that where you came from specifically influenced your choice to build, repair, and work with musical instruments? How would you actually describe what you do?
Mamie: Well the business is restoration and repair. The business isn't building. Although Chloe's building violins and violas all the time, so what do we do? What do we do here? It's like a hospital for instruments.
Nativen: Oh, that's such a great way of describing it.
Mamie: The spirit of it is restorative, right? Like a lot of these wonderful, old things might otherwise be in a sad situation if someone didn't know how to help them, and I think we also are like facilitators. We facilitate art being made.
And I really like that role, and it's the spirit of “fixing”. Rather than this consumer culture where you chuck a thing and get a new one.
Also, new things are made to be chucked and replaced, but old things were not made that way.
Mamie: I like that the character of what we do has more to do with the way that things were intended to be used when they were built.
Mamie: We kind of specialize in these World War II Gibson guitars that are flat top guitars built during World War II. They happen to have been built in the factory during wartime when all of the experienced workers were young, capable men who were off fighting in the war, so they had to replace those workers with local women and old people. So these specific guitars were built by young women and people who weren't of fighting age, so that's kind of a neat thing to be associated with.
Nativen: That's a wonderful way of describing it. Just looking at the scope of your work it was difficult to define in one sort of arena. It's like “stewardship” in a way that is really cool.
Nativen: Do you think your childhood - where you grew up - specifically influenced your desire to pursue musical instrument repair?
Chloe: Definitely. The people I grew up around gave me an immense appreciation for keeping old things alive and caring for hand built things.
Mamie: I would say I was a weirdo. I mean, I wasn't like one of a group of people that I knew who were into this stuff.
Old music and old clothes and objects. More like my family - a family culture.
Nativen: Was there like a moment in your career or your development when you realized that you really wanted to pursue this seriously? Did you have an epiphany or something like that?
Chloe: I definitely did. I was going to school in Maine for marine biology.
Which is still like a very deep passion of mine, but I have been playing violin since I was a kid and I just randomly met this guy sailing on his wooden boat down the coast of Maine who was building a violin, just for fun, and it completely split my mind in half. I was like "What? This is something that people do and it's not just a factory thing and it's like a portable trade? All the tools are so small and you can just be traveling and building violins?" I was like, "That is what I'm going to do."
Nativen: What an amazing correlation though, coming from a background of boat builders…
Chloe: I know! It was very bizarre. I met this guy when I was sitting on the dock by my school eating dinner. I saw him rowing out to a boat that looked exactly like my dad's boat, which is a really unique Danish double-ended wooden boat.
That's why I like hailed him down. I was like, "Hey, is that a Danish Spidsgatter?" And he was like, "Why yes. Come on out."
Nativen: “…and I'll change your entire world."
Chloe: Totally. It was like kismet.
Nativen: How about you, Mamie?
Mamie: Mine was more like a slow confluence as a visual artist and like small, pokey things. And also, I play old music.
I was playing old guitars and I was in my like mid-twenties and working at a vintage guitar dealership. So there were a lot of old guitars around. Then one night I had a dream where I was sleeping alone in my bed with a guitar (because sometimes you want to wake up and play a guitar).
Nativen: Right. Like you do.
Mamie: Yeah, and it's a guitar from the 1930s. It's a cool guitar. Not fancy, like beat up, you know? But I had this dream that I was waltzing, and as I was waltzing I kicked my leg out and I kicked the guitar out of bed. I had a loft and the guitar went 'pyoo' and fell to the ground.
Smashed one side of it. So, I fixed it and I was like, “Duh, of course you can fix these.” And it’s pretty satisfying.
So then I applied for the repair department at the place where I worked and I got the job and then I turned out to be pretty good at it.
Nativen: It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with you and historical instruments.
Nativen: What do you love most about Brooklyn and do you think it's integral to the work that you're doing in any way?
Mamie: I'm a little allergic to Brooklyn's current artisanal trend… but, there are worse trends in the world, you know?
Chloe: Right. A beautiful thing about Brooklyn, I think, is the concentration and diversity of age and culture and race. And our clientele is so diverse and vibrant. I think my favorite part about having a shop in Brooklyn is to have our hands in a lot of different music scenes and schools. And old people picking up instruments for the first time.
Nativen: It’s amazing to have access to that kind of like cultural diversity.
Mamie: Yeah, I really appreciate that in Brooklyn we have people of different ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender expressions coming to us.
We've worked in other shops where that's not what happens.
Nativen: Do you live in Brooklyn as well or are you..?
Mamie: I just moved to the East Village like two weeks ago.
Chloe: And I live in Bed-Stuy.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite restaurant in your neighborhood?
Chloe: The Ethiopian place. Bunna Café on Flushing. That's probably my favorite place.
Mamie: I like Barrio 480 for their tacos and what else do I like? Genet Ethiopian is great. I've been going to Angelica Kitchen a lot in the east village. Love Angelica Kitchen.
Nativen: You kind of can't, not love it. It's been there for a bajillion years so there's something very reassuring about that. You know, in an ever-changing New York it's comforting to find those places that have prevailed against all odds.
Do you have a favorite home goods or clothing store that you shop at?
Mamie: I don't shop so much. Where do I shop? I have to buy things somewhere, right?
Chloe: My mom still sends me underwear.
Mamie: That's amazing.
Chloe: And I make all my clothes. Most of my clothes... I go to Salvation Army.
Mamie: I mostly buy vintage.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite park or outdoor space?
Mamie: Yeah, Prospect Park. Hamilton Fish in the East Village is also pretty great.
Chloe: Yeah, Prospect Park. I'm a cyclist and my boyfriend really is getting into mountain biking lately and like all year round we'll bomb the trails in Prospect Park. It's really, really fun. There's so many of them. So many.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite “hidden gem” in New York?
Mamie: Oh. Barbès. That's my favorite bar.
Mamie: Jalopy, yeah. Really love Jalopy.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work here?
Mamie: It would have to be our clientele.
Chloe: Yeah, and each other.
Mamie: That's true. The spirit of collaboration with one another. That's like a huge deal.
Chloe: Well, yeah, and just like getting perspective. I don't know, there are tough jobs, there are tough clients, and having someone to pull you out of a downward spiral, you know, seriously.
Nativen: Yeah… Okay, so this is the like asking you to pick a “favorite child”, but do you have a favorite instrument you like to work on, or a project that you've done that you were like, “This was the greatest accomplishment or most exciting thing that I've ever worked on”?
Chloe: I did a really major cello restoration recently for my friend Tiana. This cello had been sitting with this splintered top for fifteen years. It was sitting in somebody else's shop. They never had time to do it and she brought it over here and I was like, "Let's make this happen." It involved a lot of little tricks and techniques that I'd never done before. I think the challenging ones that you learn from are my favorite for sure.
Nativen: You're like nursing something back to health in this intense way.
Mamie: Yeah, and that’s so right. She's literally making a plaster cast of what’s there, then sculpting away the plaster and then pressing it in to how you want it to be, you know? You're reverse engineering the way it was built.
I did a full restoration on this guitar from the 1930s, which is actually like one that I play. His was a 1936 National-Dobro steel guitar with a wooden neck where the company moved from Chicago to California in 1935. They took with them a bunch of unbuilt, random pieces of guitars that were never fully realized.
They stopped making any new models after that. They just started piecing together these and those and those. Models of guitars are like models of cars, you know?
Holt's got a mahogany neck and these weird tuners. But these guitars were wacky, so it did a lot of unexpected things, opening the whole thing up. Sawing into it with a band saw and driving a wedge in to change the angle of the neck. It was like all of these funny little techniques and you end up collecting this knowledge from people that you talk to over the years and I got a chance to use all of it in one guitar.
And then when the person picks up a guitar, if you do your job well, no one knows you've even touched it.
Chloe: It's just like, “Oh, this feels like it should feel. And it looks like it should look.”
Mamie: Right, and that it plays in tune.
Nativen: What part of your process brings you the most joy?
Chloe: Just the gratification of seeing someone really elated that their baby's back and healthy.
Mamie: Yeah. The return. The ‘here you go’. That's really nice. I really like that I can have a job that gives you money where I show up every day and I'm happy about it.
Nativen: What part do you think is the greatest struggle for you?
Mamie: Deciding how much of my free time I'm willing to give up to further my professional life. I think we live in a time when we are all supposed to be really passionate about (our work), and have all things synthesized. I'm going to tweet about every single f-ing thing in the world.
I like my quiet time. I like my supper time, and our community is like people who totally geek out. People do it from when they wake up until they fall asleep.
Nativen: What's one thing you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Mamie: I've always wanted to make a pair of shoes. Chloe's mom's a cobbler.
Or make like sculptural ladies' hats.
Chloe: But also, more related to work, I'd like to build like a “mandocello” and like a “parlor guitar”. I'd like to build more.
Mamie: A mandocello would be amazing.
Chloe: Electric guitar. I want to make an electric violin. Just needs to be eight weeks in the month.
Nativen: I can relate to that. So if you weren't doing what you're doing, what do you think you would be doing?
Chloe: I'd be scuba diving. I'd be a scientific diver.
And eating the fruits of the sea every day.
Mamie: Which are oysters or what?
Chloe: Even seaweed and fish.
Mamie: That's great. I could tell you what I am interested in doing. I would like to be able to spend a month in a refugee camp.
That would be a pretty worthwhile thing to spend your time doing.
Nativen: Yeah. Absolutely.
Mamie: In an alternate life, I was a print making instructor. I might do something like that. That would be more like a career, you know what I mean?
It’s “hands-y” and I like teaching, but you don't get as much peace as in a situation where you have a chance to do your own thing.
Nativen: What destination do you want to travel to, and do you think that might inspire or alter the work that you're doing in any way?
Mamie: I have a boyfriend, Taono, who speaks a lot of languages and we like to travel a lot. We're talking about going to Tobago, to Trinidad and Tobago, where the music tradition is pretty interesting and hot. Really vibrant and really exciting.
I recently traveled to Cuba maybe a year and a half ago. It was before the embargo started to be lifted. They're building instruments there out of repurposed things in the most smart and ingenious ways.
Nativen: How inspiring.
Mamie: I know. They gutted all of the casinos in the 1950s, but what they didn't take was the Venetian blinds - called “Persian blinds”. They have these big long slats of straight cedar that are split-cut and they're all still there and they've been aged for sixty years. So you glue two together and you have the back of a guitar. It's beautiful.
And then they were getting all this imported hardwood furniture from the USSR - and so you take a table leg and it's the neck of a violin and it's like they were doing things like bending wood on a gasoline tank from a motorcycle that's sawed in half and you put a hot coal inside. Then you bend your wood.
They figured it all out. And they're building things that are beautiful.
Chloe: I would like to travel more in Africa. My boyfriend and I went to Ethiopia ... it was amazing and I think musically, that would really inspire me.
Nativen: I don't know if you listen to music at all while you work, but do you have a favorite song or artist?
Mamie: We listen to so much music. We listen to a lot of different music.
Chloe: Yeah. We have a favorite mutual song.
Mamie: Ted Lucas, “It's So Easy When You Know What You're Doing”. It was on this radio program that we listen to, “Chances With Wolves”.
I got really into Tone Tank. He's like a rapper, but he's like a doofy kind of Italian guy from Brooklyn. It's pretty great.
Nativen: That's sounds amazing. What are three words that sum up your work for you?
Chloe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mamie: I exercise that every day.
Chloe: Yeah, for sure.
Mamie: Sometimes someone will bring you a guitar and they're like, "This is buzzing." Okay, so there are forty-nine and half ways that a guitar can buzz.
Yeah, it's not an objective thing. So there's some massaging.
Chloe: Patience, yeah. What's another word for like long-lasting.
Chloe: Yeah, or like ...
Chloe: Yeah, maybe.
Nativen: Is there anything that you ladies specifically do to connect with your community in the work that you're doing?
Chloe: I think we both want to do more of that.
Chloe: I think our main outreach has been with the “Willie Mae Rock Camp” for girls.
We've gone there and spoke to their camp kids and repaired instruments for them and donated instruments to them.
Mamie: Right. We sent a couple instruments to Standing Rock protesters.
And then we both are performers, so I think people know us now not only by that, but also being connected to Brooklyn Lutherie. I think it's important to just be stable and represent women owning a business and doing something that they believe in.
Nativen: Happy to hear that. What's the most helpful advice you've received or maybe advice that you would give to someone who's looking to pursue their creative dreams?
Mamie: I think get nerdy and don't be scared to really dive in.
Chloe: Yeah. There are so many ways to educate yourself. And even before you find the teacher or the job, there are a lot of ways to experience and teach yourself. Mess around and ruin some instruments, you know?
Mamie: Don't be scared.
Chloe: Enjoy learning how not to do stuff and figure it out.
Mamie: Also, like my dad used to say, “Show up on time. Show up on time.” Create a community by making sure that people know that they can trust you.
Nativen: Super good advice. Yeah, I think making mistakes is such a huge part of that. We think we're supposed to have it all figured out right away.
Mamie: No, totally right.
Nativen: Do you have a hero or someone who's influenced your work in a really meaningful way?
Mamie: I'm thinking of two people. Linda Manzer. Linda Manzer is a wonderful instrument builder. She's Canadian, and she's kind of been at it for long enough, she's in her sixties, so she learned her craft in the 1970s building classical guitars. We interviewed her for “She Shreds” magazine. Do you know this magazine? It's a magazine for women guitarists and bassists.
We interviewed her for that magazine and she was like, “Learning to build guitars is like taking a vow of poverty." Like it wasn't glamorous and it wasn't something that would make you a lot of money, so ...
Chloe: And it was going to be like, hanging in the shop with a bunch of guys, just all the time.
Mamie: She talked about how she grew up with brothers - she was pretty rough and ready - but it was definitely like going to work at an auto-body shop. But then she found this kind of beautiful group of guys who didn't make it difficult for her to be herself and at some point she started making really wacky instruments. She's made a few of these eight necked, forty-two stringed instruments.
And they're not just like a novelty show. They're beautiful.
She's done the physics work-ups and she knows how things vibrate. I really like the way her guitars play. The sounds are dark and resonant and like a little wet, almost murky, but not muddy.
Chloe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mamie: And they sell for $30,000. She's top of the game, you know?
Nativen: Right. What are three things you can't live without?
Mamie: I feel like some of these are going to be tools. For me, three quarter inch chisel ... Do we each get three or do we get a collective three?
Nativen: Yeah, you each get three. You're separate people. [laughs] You can have your own in general. User's choice.
Mamie: Coffee with cardamom. Yeah. Three quarter inch chisel. Coffee with cardamom, pocket knife ... I feel like at one point I did like tried online dating and I had to answer this same question.
It drove me bonkers also. I was like, "No one's ever going to look at my profile if I don't have three things!" I mean the truth is like, making out with Taono is on the list.
Nativen: Hey, it's good to know what you need in life.
Chloe: Yeah. Black tea, record collection-
Mamie: Oh, yeah, music. Yeah.
Chloe: Music. Bicycle.
Mamie: Yeah. Okay, pocket knife, coffee with cardamom, and-
Mamie: Yeah. Fela Kuti.
Nativen: Ooh nice. You like encompassed both of them. Music and love, within Fela Kuti.
Interview by: Lily Hetzler
Photos by: Ethan Covey
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copyright of Nativen
This song contains explicit lyrics