It’s not unusual to find San Francisco cellist Erica Mulkey busking at the 24th Street Mission BART station, usually accompanied by a drummer named Felix Macnee. Mulkey, who is better known by her stage name, Unwoman, sits on a little stool with her cello case propped against the wall, and a top hat out for money. Macnee plays half a trap set, comprising kick and snare drums, along with a battery of vintage cymbals. His soft, splattery beats form the scaffold upon which Mulkey lays her voice. She sings in a chalky coloratura, trilling her “rrrs” and rounding out her vowels. The two of them make an odd couple, Macnee in his suits and Mulkey in her flowery goth dresses. But Mulkey said they work so well together that they can use busking sessions as rehearsals, rather than renting out a separate practice space.
Busking isn’t a bad way for a self-employed musician to make an extra couple bucks, but Mulkey says she doesn’t depend on it for an income stream. After leaving her job as a ringtone producer-turned-project manager for the media distribution company, Moderati, Mulkey became a musician and craftswoman full-time. Unwoman is her main gig, though she also has a series of side projects, including the Heavy Sugar Duo with Macnee, and a line of hand-painted toy hats that she exhibits at steam punk shows (she has yet to sell any). Hats aside, Mulkey has survived — even thrived — by applying her old-fashioned, hand-crafted sensibility to modern technology.
The Lafayette native was a renaissance woman from birth. She began taking cello lessons in fourth grade, running through the first three Suzuki books and eventually training herself to sight-read. She says her mother cajoled her to practice by leaving candies on the music stand. When Mulkey got to high school her parents stopped paying for cello lessons and instead gave her a large allowance. “They let me choose whether I wanted to spend money on music, or on tons and tons of goth clothes,” Mulkey said. As a result, cello became a strong part of her identity. She studied music at UC Santa Cruz and started Unwoman as a senior, roughly ten years ago.
Like most contemporary music, it started at a computer. Mulkey made electronic tracks using the audio software program Reason, and laid simple cello lines on top. She recorded a full album that way, then followed up with a sequel, made on Reason 2. As time went on, the cello became more prominent, and the electronic sounds served as window dressing. By the time Mulkey composed her 2007 album, Blossoms, she’d become a much more classical-sounding musician. She incorporated cello, piano, voice, and programmed beats, played all the parts herself, and overdubbed them to give the illusion of a much larger band.
On the surface, Unwoman looks like an anachronism. She wears Edwardian dresses with ruffles, pins big flower corsages to her bodice, and walks around in black ballet slippers. She has paintbrush eyebrows and china doll features. She plays chamber music and makes crafts. She dates a guy known as Doctor Popular, who is, of all things, a professional yo-yo artist. Her music has a decidedly 19th-century sheen, with its melancholy strings and operatic vocals. And yet, her methodology is incredibly cost-effective and relatively high-tech. That’s the only way for a goth cellist to operate, if she also wants to buy groceries and split the rent on a two-bedroom Mission District apartment. “I’m very organized,” Mulkey explained, as she checked off items on a to-do list.
In fact, Unwoman is several iterations ahead of her peers. She funded her last album, Casualties, with donations amassed through the web portal Kickstarter.com, which allows artists to fund their projects with fan contributions. Mulkey had to raise $2,500, so she set up a web storefront and offered a special gift to anyone who pledged $300 or more — she would set the donor’s poem to music. Mulkey played a couple examples on her home stereo. The first began with a series of dismal piano chords. Traveling underground/In the middle of the night, Mulvey trilled, as cello and theramin wafted in, to make the music sound murkier. “The lyrics are super dark and depressing,” Mulkey explained, “so I just went with it.” Later, she made a dance remix of the album, also using Kickstarter as a funding source.
The dance remix suggests that Unwoman might ultimately head in a different direction. Lately, she’s incorporated new gadgetry into her instrumentals, merging classical strings with programmed drums and glitchy beats. There’s even a YouTube video of Unwoman and Doctor Popular playing outside Mission Comics & Art, on 20th Street. He plays a beat on the iPad, she adds staccato cello chords, and they both sing. Doctor Popular wears nerd glasses and a fedora. Mulkey has one of her toy hats tipped at a rakish angle. They’re odd candidates to usher in the next wave of retro-futurism. But their music sure is catchy.