Turning the Tables:
An Oral History of the Kitchen Sisters

Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson with Charles Hardy, III
Part 2

Charles: Ok. Where do we go from there?

Audio Segment 3:
Projects (Time: 09:20)
28.8 | 56k
Davia: We decided along the way, as we were driving around the counties, that we wanted to do these tapes that you could put in your car, kind of audio tours. And so we spent, you know, so you could drive from Nikki's house to the rodeo queen's house in San Benito. And not that anyone else was on that road besides us. But anyway, we were sure that we would record everything between here and there and you could put the tapes in and we would partner with the AAA, or we would partner with gas stations, or insurance companies, or something and we started to kind of develop this idea while we were still doing our local show while we were still doing the oral history shows, while our things were going on NPR. But that this would be our new direction and, I think you had the idea of Route 66, if I remember right. But somehow, and I can't remember exactly that moment, but one of us, I think it was her, said, "What about Route 66?". Because we were kind of thinking about roads and how you would do these tours. And suddenly it was like, Oh, there's a road. Now you're talking.

Nikki: That's another road!

Davia: Yes, history and needing all those elements and what was going to be that sound that kept people interested. But, had you already gotten married by this point? And have we come from Alaska?

Nikki: You moved.

Davia: No, but we hadn't done Route 66 yet. Because I did it after living here for . . . a year.

Nikki: Right, you were driving when you drove back.

Davia: Right, but that's what I'm thinking. We went to Alaska somewhere in there.

Nikki: The teaching kind of becomes part of this gig. Which we really liked to do because it's fun to . . .

Davia: This is helpful to us, Charlie, because we have not pieced this together, ever. We just lived this and never looked back . . .

Nikki: And maybe now that we've tried . . .

Davia: To enhance our memory, because it's really slagging.

Nikki: Partly, maybe, we could fill in with some of the dates, if we . . .

Davia: Oh, sure, right.

Nikki: We're going to get right on that. No, I mean for ourselves. But the idea of teaching was great because we'd work other producers at little stations. And we'd come in . . . The Alaska trip was fabulous. We went to Kodiak, Alaska and we worked at a station for a month and then did several pieces while we were up there as well as teaching.

Davia: NPR happened to be in Alaska. There was a lot of serendipity in our life. Because NPR did All Things Considered, live from Alaska that summer. So we were feeding all the stuff that we'd been gathering all summer right to them. And again, we segued with them, so suddenly we knew Noah better and other producers, which is again, what it takes to get to do interesting work with NPR's people knowing you and you knowing them.

Nikki: And then we went to Juneau and we went to several other little towns in Alaska, to the public radio stations. Haines, Ketchikan, and worked with producers there. I don't know, did we do other . . . ? Then we started teaching at Western Public Radio as well, with the very workshops that we had taken that got us going. They began inviting us to come and teach there to get the new crop of producers going. Which is, I think, what's really missing in public radio right now is this lack of training and we all miss that so much, what Western Public Radio did. And, I mean, you really look at the work that they did and all the reporters, all the people we come to hear all the time, grew up through that time. And there's nothing quite like it now. Then Davia went back to North Carolina.

Davia: Well, first I moved to San Francisco because I wanted to do film sound design. And I just thought, okay, I've lived in Santa Cruz for 10 years and just felt like it was time. We just knew we'd do, we'd figure it out. It was sort of like, okay, and I'll do film sound and Nikki would have her museums and we would just still continue, we didn't know . . .You'd gotten married. You weren't pregnant when I . . .

Nikki: I don't know. I'd gotten married probably . . . I got married in '82.

Davia: And then we went to Alaska, her honeymoon was a double-date. We all four of us went up to Alaska.

Nikki: And we worked.

Both: And they fished.

Davia: We were the Kitchen sisters and they were the Salmon Brothers. And we had salmon and vodka every night.

Nikki: That was great.

Davia: Oh, it was really good.

Nikki: So then . . .

Davia: And then Bro got a teaching . . . just when we got . . . just when I felt my film sound career was beginning and Randy Thom was going to help me. And my first jobs in film sound was, I think the Ewok movie or whatever. I was wrapped in padding and pillows and cushions and they miked my body and I had to throw myself down hills. Over and over again to get the sound of like some Ewok falling down mountains. And I thought, "This is great." So I was at Skywalker Ranch falling off hills, miked, and then Bro/font>, my boyfriend, got a teaching job at UNC.

Nikki: But, you know, didn't we do some other things like we did all those pieces. When was "Faces, Mirrors, Masks? Before?

Davia: Right at the same time.

Nikki: Because that's those programs too. We started working on with . . .

Davia: Because I was doing them out of North Carolina.

Nikki:And we did "Cabrera Infante."

Davia: Remember because I have all my notes of talking to you from the kitchen and then remember they did ... NPR at the time just in the same moment, started a series called Faces, Mirrors, Masks: 20th century Latin American Fiction Writers. A program that was so ahead of its time and should be re-aired endlessly. They were brilliant to come up with that idea and they brought, it was amazing, they brought twelve of us there, maybe more, probably twenty of us, to each work on it and they put us in a crash course, like graduate school, in Latin American literature. And for three or four days we sat there with all, Joe Frank, and Jay and Getty Davis, and Larry Masset, and all these people in, just absorbing everything about Latin American fiction. And then they assigned out the stories depending, they kind of did a mix and match, who, what writer and what producer. We were given the exiled Cuban writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante. And we traveled to England to meet him and France to do some interviews. Then cast the stories out of New York, because we were dramatizing it, and mixed it in New York with Tom Lopez. We got to work with Tom Lopez. And then now Nikki was pregnant. Because then they gave a second assignment for the Jorge Amado piece. And I went to Brazil, and you couldn't because of being pregnant, right?

Nikki: Is that what happened?

Davia: But we produced it together.

Nikki: Right. So we were doing, even thought we were living in different places we were coming together to do these sort of pieces throughout. And I was having babies and Davia was in movies. And I was doing museums and we were sort of doing different things but coming together for special projects.

Davia: And then Bro and I drove back across Route 66 together. We took the summer after his North Carolina job ended and then we came back and Nikki took all the tape from the Route 66 trip and then we shaped this history of Route 66 that we did at that point. And at the same time, for me, someone had sent me a book in the mail that was . . .they said, "Oh this reminds me of your family". And it was called Imaginary Crimes and I read this book and I just said, "I have to make a movie based on this book". I had never had that thought or idea before but there was something about the book and so, simultaneously at this point, I then started trying to option the book. And a friend of mine from elementary school was the one person I knew in the film industry at that point, besides Randy Thom. And so we did that and then so for the next ten years imagine as every story is going on between Nikki and I, and I'm starting to write a screenplay. So, that's all going on now for the next decade until the film was made with Harvey Keitel. And since simultaneously, so we come back and now Randy Thom is helping us mix Route 66. And then when Route 66 was done he said to me, "What's next?" And I said, "Movies", thinking film sound design. And he called me the next day or so and he said, "You have a job in movie". He said, "Yes, your working with Frances Coppola." I couldn't believe it. He said, "Yes, your in casting." "What?" He said, "Well, that's the only job available. Do you want it?" "Yeah, I guess so." So I started, and I always thought, "Oh, film casting, I'll get into film sound any day now." And then I just really liked casting. And so I began working in film casting then for . . . that was in 1984, on Peggy Sue Got Married.

Charles: On Peggy Sue Got Married?

Davia: Yes, first film.

Charles: Let me just check, there's a time counter on this thing . . .

Davia: You have two hours. We have plenty of time on this.

Nikki: You have to go soon. You're wanted in...

Charles: I'm wanted soon.

Davia: You have to go do the tuba people.

Charles: Well, what time is it?

Nikki: We're almost done.

Charles: We're almost done? We're up to 1984. But let's leap forward then to the idea behind Lost and Found Sound.

Nikki: Well, Davia was in Memphis working on a film.

Davia: No, no. Way before then. At the NEA. That's where the idea was . . .

Nikki: Oh, the NEA thing, right. Okay.

Davia: Start there.

Nikki: You start there. Because you were there.

Davia: So, both of us would serve on NEA panels for helping them give out grants. I was asked to be on a television and film panel one time, and it was when they were giving out the Millennial, just beginning, just the very, very first, because they were under attack from the Gingrich gang and individual artists were no longer being able to get grants. And they were also how to make a splash at the turn of the century and how to get money out to artists. And so they showed us a Millennial grant. And it was a big photographic survey of the US. And it was a huge collaboration and it covered all these decades, all these different people's work. And would we read this grant and what did our panel think? And as we all discussed it I just said aloud, "Wouldn't it be interesting to do this in film?" Oh, I'm sorry, "Wouldn't this be interesting to do this in sound?" And a few months later the phone rang and it was the NEA and they said, "About that Millennial sound project you were talking about". And I was like, "No, I wasn't talking about it" And they said, "Oh yeah, you were. We have a grant process, a planning grant process coming up. Why don't you apply for funds and think about that? Why don't you guys consider that?" And so I called Nikki. We started brainstorming it. And they said, "Oh yeah, and the grant's due like tomorrow"or something.

Nikki: That's always the way.

Davia: So, we just said, "Big collaboration. Call Jay immediately." The three of us started brainstorming, hadn't seen Jay much in about a decade. But had always stayed in touch some.
Jay Allison
Lost and Found Sound
And we had barely been working together. We had done the Edith Piaf story and the Joe DiMaggio story. Yes, two stories in 10 years at that point. I mean, we're total friends and still hung but hadn't been doing radio. And we just kind of, this was like '95 or '96 when the first in what was called, what was the grant called? "The American Soundtrack" or something. We had a working title, then it went to Air Millennium and then it just kept evolving and then with the planning grant we just started talking to everyone we knew. And we would cook with people around the country. Cooked on the West coast. Cooked on the East coast. And would sit and eat together and incubate and brainstorm. And we immediately knew we didn't want it only to be radio producers. We wanted it to be people from outside of radio as much as inside. And this big collaborative idea. But we didn't imagine it as it became. I mean we imagined that all the initial grants, first of all don't say Lost and Found Sound, they say these other titles. And then they say "An End of the Century Freestanding Eight Part Series, Four Hours Straddling Time and Sound." I had this great idea that it would be December '99, January 2000 four hour-long specials. Instead Rick Madden at CPB—once CPB funded it—Corporation for Public Broadcasting said, "Make a splash. Do something. Don't waste time trying to get stations to take off other programming. Put it on where the existing shows and really have twelve million people here in a night. Not a scraggly whatever that catches it. And then they put it on at midnight on a Sunday in some town." But it moved our time line up by eleven months.

Nikki: And by that time, we had through our meetings with other producers around the country and we kind of come up with this idea of some of the programs that we wanted to do. And we'd come up with this idea of a Quest for Sound. We knew we wanted to try and get material from listeners in some way. So we had these ideas, and then when we came together with National Public Radio, and they said, "Well, this is a good idea. We'd like to start in January of 1999. And we'd like it to be every week." Now this was about October of '98 when they said this. And we didn't have one thing in the can. We had anticipated that we would have an entire six - eight months to produce this series. And we went on the air January 1999. And we just dove in. And every week it was right down to the wire getting that piece on. Which was wonderful too because, I think it allowed us, rather than pre-preparing all this stuff that we thought would be meaningful at the end of the century, it just kind of gave us the ability to keep in the flow and see what was being done elsewhere, and try and move it to the next step, get that next idea versus being a year late for the party. So I think in some ways it was a grand idea. And having it be in a news show, where a station doesn't have to specially find a slot for it and where it's on a regular day at a regular time was a really unusual thing for NPR to do. And it branded the series in a way that I don't think we ever would have imagined had it not come down that way.

Davia: And the other different part of it was that quest for sound, the idea and that was, especially as we were looking for a way to make it manageable. And I mean this thing is like this octopus, you know, Nikki's in Santa Cruz, I'm in San Francisco, there's a Lost and Found Sound office in Frances Coppola's building at American Zoetrope, he supported the series throughout and so we're housed there. And Jay is in Woods Hole. Art Silverman was the executive in charge at NPR. Plus Darcy Bacon, plus we had a product manager, Sandra Wong. Plus Laura Folger doing graphics and producing. And so we were just, plus any other independents and there were 50, 60, 70, 80, 100's of people then participating all over. So we were always trying to find ways to make that workable so Jay quickly on established himself as the Curator of the Quest for Sound. And that became his niche and he had this whole team around him because these thousands of messages were pouring in and who was going to listen to all this and make those decisions. And so that was the sort of a wonderful way . . . of a series within the series that could continue and he would be, you know, have his area. It's a series that couldn't have happened without e-mail and Pro Tools. It was just it hit at the right moment with the right technology. It was interesting because in another place and time you couldn't have collaborated quite like this so quickly. And other radio collaborations have happened lots, but for it to have that much of a being able to turn on a dime kind of a thing, or respond to material that came in overnight and do something with it and create a new show for the following Friday together.

Charles: How much longer is it going to last?

Davia: It's . . . we know we're monthly till January and then we don't know what's going to happen after that. We don't want to, we don't want to just say this is the last Lost and Found Sound because it's too beautiful an idea and it's got such a life and there's still so much . . .

Nikki: There's so many stories still that, I mean, so many that we're already working on. But I imagine it'll be a sort of an occasional piece, occasional series on NPR. And then hopefully we'll be working on some other project. We don't quite know.

Charles: And at this point if you, ten years from now where you're thinking in sort of terms of legacy, right, and there's one program, only one program survives from Lost and Found Sound to represent your vision, what it meant . . .

Davia: Does it have to be one program?

Charles: Give me one. Two.

Davia: Okay. Well, I mean, it has to be, for me, for our work because Lost and Found Sound is the Kitchen Sisters and Jay as executive producer and producing a lot of it, but remember it's every . . . NPR producers produced a hunk of them, independents produced a hunk of them so . . .but for our work, the Kitchen Sisters, it's the WHER story for me. Because, and Nikki was starting to say it, we had found that story out. I was working on the Rainmakerin Memphis—met Sam Phillips through that which led us to Sam and Becky Phillips. Sam, who created Sun Studios and one of the most amazing, you know, and was a lot like us. I mean, he supported himself in the early days before he hit it big. He'd record your wedding or funeral or your Bar Mitzvah or whatever. He was just a guy with a tape recorder making his way through life and doing anything—burning up to record the sounds of poor black people and poor white people doing that music and having this vision for . . . He always wanted a radio station. He admired his wife so much, who he met on the radio in Alabama, and then ultimately he would sell Elvis's contract and with that money create an all-girl radio station in the third Holiday Inn ever built. And meeting . . . that we were able to meet all these women, again, and I think Sam took a shine to us because we were women in radio, which was something he loved. And for us then to find all these women and meet all these women and find the console and the record library and kind of recreated...and then ultimately the things that happened for the story. Northwest Airlines flew all the women from wherever they lived to New York and we did a tribute to Sam and the women at the Museum of Television and Radio. They were in People magazine. They were in the New York Times. All the women, as we mentioned earlier today, all those women kept coming and finding us afterwards. We had a big reunion of them in Memphis with their families.

Nikki: Plus we've just established these relationships with these women and we love them and we talk to them all the time. And there are, they came before us, I mean they were in the same profession before us. And I think just to, one of the most moving things for me, when we had these big celebrations in New York and in Memphis, talking to their kids, their children, who would come up to us and say, "Oh, thank you." I mean crying and saying, "Thank you for acknowledging my mother. Thank you for, you know, she never even talked about this. It was never validated that this was an important or significant thing in her life." That was very important and moving. And it's happened in so many of our pieces. But that one, my, there were so many women involved. Such a big story.

Davia: The other story is, I don't know that it's my favorite production, but in terms of kind of the significance and the things that happened because you do a piece. One of the stories Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins was about a man who never knew his father as he was growing up, didn't know who is father was, his mother was ashamed and would never tell him. And he became a disc jockey without knowing anything about his family. Anyway, come to find out that his father was the first black disc jockey in Cleveland in the 40's. And so the piece was called Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins: Searching for My Father's Voice. And the piece aired and a guy was sitting in his car, a rented car, he was in Dallas on business, and he listened to the piece and he said to himself, "That man is my cousin." And Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins had been his uncle. And here was William Allen Taylor looking for his family, looking for the connection. He was literally looking for the sound of Bill Hawkins because there were no recordings and that was a lot what the piece was about, you heard him going from person to person and trying and asking if he sounded like him because he would do what he thought Bill Hawkins sounded like. Ultimately this man who was a photographer gave him tons of photographs of his family. They just met up and went to Cleveland together and went looking through all these old tapes, and . . . just the power of a story, to be able to give someone something so fundamental to what they need and it was that one man's story but I think it's so many people's story so that one hits me in a deep way, too.

And Guy Tyler even, that he'd be dead and have done all this work and that you could then take this man's legacy and put it onto the air. All that effort people make. Because so much of our work is about people who are obsessed or possessed, just driven by some kind of passionate need to document and record and so you feel like when you are able then to give it air, it means something more.

Charles: And this is something that oral historians should be able to identify with.

Davia: That's right.

Nikki: I'd pick "WHER," as well. And I'd pick "Cigar Stories" I think really so spoke to me and I love, I love the combination of elements in that piece. I like the readings from literature. I like the old recordings. I like the oral histories. We went to Tina Pacheco for her film sound, interviews she had done with the women cigar workers. It was like ferreting out all the work other people had done on this subject; to try and put it into one piece. And it all stemmed from this phone call which came in on our Quest for Sound line. We did a few of the Quest for Sounds, not many, I mean Jay was mostly the person that commandeered that, but, when we heard that that call had come in we jumped on it and said, "We want that one. That's the one we want." And although it was interesting we didn't ever use the record that Henry Cordova called in about, was not his grandfather reading as he read in the cigar factories. It was from this memory of his grandfather's voice and this disc that had his grandfather's voice on it that this whole story of what his grandfather used to do for a living, which then led us to this larger story. And trying to tell the big picture story from this little phone call. I liked that one a lot. And the music, the music's great.

Davia: And then the whole Quest for Sounds. I just loved that people kept calling and calling with all this amazing stuff. And that, you know, then all these people's stories made it onto air. I love that part of it.

Nikki: Uh, you're late.

Audio Segment 4:
Recording Secrets (Time: 06:21)
28.8 | 56k
Charles: No. I got to get this. Tell us how you go about recording your interviews.

Davia: I'm taking that secret to my grave.

Nikki: Naturally. Want some inside information on this?

Davia: Do you want us to describe how we mike people? How we interview? Okay.

Charles: This will be of tremendous interest to people who are just starting out. And how do you go about recording a broadcast quality interview?

Recording secrets of The Kitchen Sisters.
NOTE: Audio levels of this clip are quite low. For
better sound, listen to the audio clip above.
28.8 | Cable/T-1
Nikki: Well, probably we would be, if I were going to mike Davia I would be a lot closer to her than we are presently. I'd be about yeah close, very close. Our two chairs are up against each other, and this isn't even close enough. I'd love to be on a couch with her. That's where I'd like to be.

Charles: Sitting right next to her. Okay, so you're taking the microphone.

Davia: You should move here now.

Charles: Okay, I'm going to move over to the far side. Who wants the headphones?

Davia: Nikki.

Nikki: I would have the headphones. We would have a splitter.

Davia: I have a splitter that let's us both plug in to that. And we're both wearing headphones.

Charles: Okay.

Nikki: Okay, you're the other Kitchen Sister, okay?

Davia: No, I'm the Kitchen Sister.

Nikki: Oh, we're going to do him. Okay.

Charles: You're interviewing me. Okay.

Nikki: So Davia's got headphones. Pretend.

Davia: And Davia has a pistol grip, which you don't have so there'll be mic handling noise . . . because we're always afraid of my mic noise. Okay, now, my arm is going to be tired. I know that. It's shortly, so I'm immediately looking for this, right. I'm looking for a point where I can lay my arm down. Okay. So that's the first thing. Nikki, in an ideal world, Nikki and I have some eye contact but often we don't. More important is that she, you can see Nikki. I know that. I know you can see me. Nikki's primarily watching levels when we're getting going. Okay, so you and I are kind of connected more in the beginning. And I'm going to do this and I'm also, we don't have two mikes, we only use one. So when Nikki's asking a question..

Nikki: She mike's me and I mike her. And the first question I'd ask you is, "So Charlie, what did you have for breakfast?"

Charles: Eggs, bacon, one bagel, two cups of tea. And some strawberries.

Davia: So you start with that. And then as the interview goes on what often happens is, and it doesn't always, but see, probably in this interview it might not happen but then again it probably would, because of the arm question and since as Nikki was saying yesterday that on a couch, here's the other thing, I would also be up here some other rest but pretty soon I know, actually I know it's going to happen in about two minutes, I'm going to wind up leaning against you and recording because we mike usually this close about three to four inches. But I'm trying to make sure Nikki will nudge me.But I have headphones on too. If I'm getting too much sibilance or . . .

Nikki: Plosives . . .

Davia: and I'll readjust.

Nikki: We always say it's shooting in close up.

Davia: And I'll be leaning against you and I think that why, yes, I think that's why our interviews are a little different because there's human contact. Because I have this gapping the spark plug theory of life that that's that kind of chain, and usually we can kind of have some—we're kicking each other, you know—and some way cueing. We're leaning. We learned yesterday that oral historians use booms and— never—don't hand hold and don't touch. So this is why this is coming up in this interview.

Charles: Few oral historians use booms. Most oral historians either use a table stand or just rest the microphone on the table. Or use a lav.

Davia: No human booms, huh?

Charles: No human booms. This is a unique approach. But this is, but the microphone now is and inch or two away from my mouth. Okay.

Davia: But our levels would have been adjusted towards that.

Nikki: Which I probably haven't done here.

Davia: Yeah, so the levels might, but that's how we do it because we like that really present sound. We like it so that that person feels like, you know... there are times where we pull back. But I'd say our work is pretty much portraiture and close up portraiture and we want you to feel the... usually the people we've chosen have a certain kind of voice or certain kind of story and we want you mesmerized by them.

Nikki: Or dentures.

Davia: We want you to hear the clicks of their teeth.

Nikki: Exactly.

Davia: The clatter. But that's usually, and so, also for, it helps my arm rest and it just, I think it makes people feel more comfortable. It just somehow that subtle thing that's not intrusive. But as I said, I often wonder if a man, like I wonder if Jay or David Isay or Dan Collison or any of the people or you, find as men, can do that. We've always kind of said . . .also I think our interviews, we, because there's two of us, that's the other part of how we work, one of us is . . . we often ask questions twice in different ways. One of us is listening in the more immediate way. One of us is, kind of, and it's not a assigned, not like you take the big picture, I'll take the small picture. But we're both team tagging each other in terms of how we remember the whole of an idea. And, because people often deviate off the subject as they're going. So you want to make sure that you listen and go there with them but at the same time remember to get those things you need. We always ask people to state, to introduce themselves two and three and four times if we can. Except when we forget, which is all the time. What else?

Charles: That's the fundamentals?

Nikki: The fundamentals.

Davia: And we don't turn off the microphone hardly ever until we leave or put it away. And if people say don't record it, we'll beg them to let us record it. But if they say don't record it, we won't. We don't ever secretly record. We don't walk in with the tape recorder on, not until the person knows that we're recording do we begin. And we edit, edit, edit, edit.

Nikki: Which is a whole other story.

Charles: Yes. But we don't have time for that story. Okay but now we have there then the Kitchen Sister's technique of interviewing. Which is unique.

Davia: Which we didn't know it was unique. Because we never do anything but our own interviews.

Nikki: Thank you.

Charles: Okay.

~ End Oral History Part 2 ~

Making Lost & Found Sound | Oral History-1 | Oral History-2 | Durham Talk | Working With the Kitchen Sisters

Turning the Tables: An Oral History of the Kitchen Sisters
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Journal for MultiMedia History

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