Category Archives: interview

meet chauntee and monique: milwaukee’s sistastrings

Monique and Chauntee, SistaStrings, People with Panache

Chauntee and Monique’s inspirations are Lianne La Havas, a soulful singer with an amazing voice; Monica Martin, the lead singer of PHOX; Erykah Badu – “If she could be my godmother, I would pass away and die,” Chauntee says; Lauryn Hill; classical violinist Hilary Hahn; and Kim Burrell, an amazing gospel singer on Frank Ocean’s latest album. Chauntee laughs — “It was funny, I grew up listening to Kim Burrell, and then I read this article ‘introducing’ her…are you kidding?!”

This Sunday at church, our priest spoke about being vigilant. Not for crime, or bad news, or others’ behavior—but for goodness.

Linking together the messages throughout the service, Father Bob did an artful job of highlighting the urgent need for all of us to be awake.

Be awake to the good things going on around us in our world.

Be awake to the fact that we can create that goodness ourselves, in moments both small and momentous each day.

Be awake to others’ challenges and victories, and lend a hand how you can.

It’s not news that those are effective ways to start making change. But the reminder is key: No matter our talents or situations, we have a little spark within us, ready and waiting to make a difference.

Chauntee and Monique Ross understand this so beautifully. These two are sisters, some of Milwaukee’s most gorgeously talented musicians, and incredibly authentic, inspiring humans—and they got their start in a church.

“We were Sisters of PraiZe,” says Chauntee, laughing with Monique about her sisters’ string quartet that toured the church circuit in the ‘90s. “I found a really heinous picture of the four of us with string instruments and our flutes just laying around—laying around!—wearing our little leather jackets.”

I wish I had access to the Ross family photo album for this gem, but instead I got a way better gift. Read on for the best parts of a few hours on the porch with SistaStrings—a violin-cello string duet making heartfelt music for expression, connection and social justice.

People with Panache: What was your first instrument?

Monique Ross: I started piano when I was 3. My parents saw I was picking up music quickly, through ear training—and so did my piano teacher. In lessons she would play the piece, and I would play it back to her. I got to a level where I should be able to sight-read the next piece, and she realized, “Oh! You can’t read music!”

Chauntee Ross: Mine was violin… I got mine when I was 3. It was the best Christmas ever. Our oldest sister was the ultimate coolest big sister in life. All of our sisters, all of our cousins, all of our friends thought she was amazing. She played violin, so I wanted to play, too.

Our mom grew up on the west side of Chicago. Her mom was an alcoholic, so she didn’t invest in her kids like she should’ve. So when my mom got older, she had a personal mission to invest in her children.

PWP: How did your parents support your music growing up? I want to be that kind of parent!

SistaStrings, peoplewithpanache.com

Monique [right] speaks so highly of Wendy Warner. “She spoke into my life so hard as a senior in high school and prepared me for college auditions. Her main focus was not technique—we’re going to work on musicality of your playing, how you feel, how you’re going to interpret this piece, how you’ll put yourself into the music. She is a very beautiful, professional solo cellist, which is so hard to do, and she saw something in me.”

Monique: Dad did IT at M&I Bank, and Mom home-schooled us. But they were also traveling street evangelists.

Chauntee: Growing up playing in churches was really good for our ears, which plays into how we play now. You go to a church and somebody will break into song, some old gospel spiritual, and you just pick up on it and go.

When we do string arrangements, playing with various hip hop groups and singer songwriters, it’s very easy to fall back into that. We also went to The String Academy of Wisconsin, are classically trained, went to college and did the whole conservatory life.

We started SistaStrings in 2014, and I moved to Milwaukee rather than grad school because I was kind burned out from the whole school scene and competitive aspect. Everyone wants an orchestra or chamber job.

PWP: A lot of my favorite songs I’ve heard of yours have a really deep message. How do you tie social justice in?

Monique: Growing up, we were home-schooled, and it was very important to our parents that we learned correct black history. You don’t hear about Stokely Carmichael in school, for example. History was very important to my parents. Obviously these things, like his work with civil rights, have been happening but you are more aware of it as you get older. We are the generation to do something—we can’t pass this up.

I have a daughter now. I can’t be like, I didn’t do anything to make this world better for you.

We start every show with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Chauntee does a great job explaining why.

Chauntee: Growing up, we were two of the only black kids playing classical music—in every class. There were maybe about five other black students in The Academy. Of course you notice a difference in how sometimes teachers treat you.

When Monique first started violin at the Conservatory of Music, there were a lot of great people, but the guy who was teaching her wouldn’t teach her because he said he didn’t teach ‘her kind.’

SistaStrings, People with Panache

“I know how blessed I was to have teachers who believed in me as a person,” Chauntee [right] says. “That’s what fed me and kept me going to where I am today.”

I would go to orchestra concerts, our parents would get us tickets, and we would be among the very few people of color in the audience, let alone on the stage. We would notice and carry on with our education because our parents are amazing people.

It became more prominent in how we produced music. How I relate to classical music might be different than how the next person who is white might. For example, when I hear Vivaldi, a very classical composer, he had really funky beats, kind of like hip-hop beats to me. I’m relating to it in a different way.

Now we combine “Passacaglia,” a famous classical duet, with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It just spills forth.

PWP: After your experiences, and teaching young people music yourselves, what lesson do you want to share with your students?

Monique: Put your pain into your music, your happiness, your hurt—all of that is so important. That’s what I want to give.

Chauntee: The most recent impactful music moment was when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed. I had a new emotion going on; I was just feeling very helpless, and I hated how helpless I felt.

But that’s incorrect. Let me go back to what my parents taught me and what we’ve learned by talking with good people: We do matter, and we can make an impact, even a small one.

So we had a bunch of artists come together over dinner here. We laughed, we talked, we cried, we shared experiences. Now that we’re together, we asked, what can we do to make a difference in our community? Tarik Moody from 88.9, Jay Anderson, Johanna Rose, Airo Kwil, Bo Triplex, Zed Kenzo, Siren, a whole bunch of people were here—so we had a huge long dialogue. Obviously we’re all artists, and our form of protest is going to come through our music. We put together a music fest that came together the weekend of the Sherman Park situation. Then we started getting all these texts about what was going on: “You need to go home!” Actually, we were right in the middle of the right place right now, with all these beautiful people who understand. Music was the way to communicate that. Since then, it’s been a whole new mission for me.

SistaStrings stuck in laughter, PWP

What’s it like playing together as sisters? (Besides having trouble stopping laughing, like in this attempt at a photo…) “When you run into hard times with people who aren’t your siblings, you might end it,” Monique says. “With sisters, you work through it. For our Sofar session we played an original piece we’d done a million times before and since. It hasn’t happened since then, but we just vibed off each other in a different way, and when those moments happen it feels like it wouldn’t happen with anyone but my sister.”

Monique: It was a beautiful thing. Chauntee is the more vocal between us. For me personally, with everything that’s been going on recently, I realized I need to find my voice.

Chauntee: It’s sometimes very painful playing these songs. Like we have done the song “Strange Fruit” I think since the end of 2014, when Tamir Rice was killed.

I’d been to the art museum in Detroit and saw a quilt called Strange Fruit. The quilter had listed any name she could find of a person who had been lynched. And it was enormous. You know so many nobodies were not even represented. It was really heavy, and ever since then, that song meant a lot to me. There was no “Now we’re going to be social justice women.” But it was like this is what’s happening, and it’s reaching us on so many levels: our nephews, father, brother, friends.

The power of song and lyrics, the power of sound to pull on heartstrings…from there you can go and hopefully make some type of small difference in one person’s life.

Monique: The only way things change is if people make it happen. Hopefully it will spread and something will change.

PWP: When you play, your body, your heart, your soul is just so obviously part of your music.

Chauntee: I’m so glad that comes through. One of our teachers used to ask: What do you want to say when you play this? He showed us how to move our hands, our bodies, to share a feeling, get to the audience’s heart—it’s a whole different way to relate to students.

That’s why I’m so passionate about the future of musical education. So many kids are going to come up and do some shit because they have the right tools to get a message across to anyone who hears them. That’s the thing that keeps me from being down on myself, the community, the country and whatnot.

When I think about the possibilities of the future, what we can do in a feasible way makes me very, very happy.

Me, too.

Catch SistaStrings on December 10 at the VoodooHoney Unveiling Show, January 19 at FemFest, and watch their Facebook page for more.

[Photos by Alysse.]

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meet jennifer: empowering children through music in chicago

Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, People's Music School, People with Panache

Jennifer is a mother of 2 children: a 7-year-old violinist and a 6-year-old cellist. “This is very strategic because I’m a pianist,” she says, “so now I have my trio.”

First, I have to get this out: CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! CUBS WIIIIIN!

After 108 years of disappointment, Cubs fans everywhere are overwhelmed with emotion at the World Series win on Wednesday night. I’ve been a Cubs fan for the past 11 years that I’ve been living in Chicago, and the electricity in the last few weeks has been really fun to witness. I’m not the first to say it, but my absolute favorite part of the whole thing is all of the people who got to experience this with or for their grandparents, who have waited MUCH longer than everyone else. Hey Chicago, what do you say? Cubs won the World Series (yester)day!

Now, Alysse and I want to say thank you for your patience. We’re back! After a couple-week hiatus due to grad school and weddings and work, we’re so ready to bring you more stories of women in our cities who are making their passions reality, single-mindedly pursuing their dreams, and paving their paths toward the lives they want to live. We’ve really missed you! Continue reading

meet nicole: chicago restaurateur and catering expert

This weekend is 2016 Wedding No. 10—my cousin Josh and his lovely fiancé Katherine. Their reception will be held in the Drake Hotel—very fancy and very classic “Chicago.” I am sure the food will be decadent, but truthfully I’m most excited to see the inside of the Drake. I’ve been living downtown for going on 5 years and I’ve never set foot inside the iconic hotel—though I’ve often gazed at it nestled between the other skyscrapers while lying in the sand on Oak Street beach. I’ve always loved it because it reminds me simultaneously of my hometown, Chicago, and my alma mater, Drake University, although the two share nothing but the name.

Alysse and I have also been talking a ton about her wedding plans for next year. *Happy dance!* For her venue, she has decided on a gorgeous outdoor affair under a big tent on rolling hills in Milwaukee’s Grant Park, made even more deliciously fun with her favorite foods grown by some of her favorite people, plus flower crowns and vegetable bouquets. The vision in my head in picturesquely Alysse. And I can’t wait.

Naturally, all of this wedding attending and planning has me thinking about the possibilities for my own someday, so what better person to interview during my “year of weddings” than Nicole Outrequin Quaisser—co-owner of LM Restaurant Group. Besides owning restaurants such as Troquet and Brasserie by LM with her husband, Nicole also runs a catering business and manages event spaces such as Lacuna Lofts, a trendy venue in Pilsen that is a wedding favorite—and I can see why! Everywhere you look, there is a unique piece of art or perfectly placed detail to appreciate. No surface is off limits—even some of the doors are adorned with works of art.

The icing on the wedding cake: Nicole is from Germany but launched her catering career here in Chicago—at none other than the Drake Hotel.

Nicole O Q, LM Restaurant, People with Panache

On apprenticeships: “It’s a different approach in Germany. You work for 3 months and you go to school for 3 months. You actually get to work every single department at the hotel and get to know everything from the ground up. You learn everything else at school, but when you’re done, you’ve actually done it already, you haven’t just learned it in theory.”

People with Panache: How did you get into the restaurant and catering business? Continue reading

meet erin: healing community through yoga in detroit

One Sweet Erin

I love this picture of Erin at Iyengar Yoga Detroit. “My goal is to live in intentional community settings,” Erin says. Since she left college, she has lived in intentional community settings, focusing on connection and creating family space with non-blood family. It’s like her yoga practice brought out in how she wants to live. “My home community is a microcosm of how I want to live in greater community, with conflict resolution, vulnerability, and more.”

“Aren’t I radiant?” my grandma asked me last night.

She just had her final radiation treatment last week in a grueling series of surgeries and therapies over the last year and a half. Hallelujah—she is completely back to the spitfire of a woman that I know and love very, very much. Her puns prove it.

My grandma is a beautiful example of healing and resilience—of knowing who you are and not letting anything stop you from being you. Ever her teacher self, she brought apples to the hospital staff on her last day of treatment. Continue reading

meet nicole: leading ms. tech to support women startups

Nicole Yeary, Ms. Tech, People with Panache

“But I think there’s a real critical piece to all of this,” Nicole says. “It’s not just me—there’s a team of people who help to make all this happen. That’s why I think Chicago has the largest number of female founders—because we’re so willing to help each other.”

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be; I always knew the woman I wanted to become.”

Diane Von Furstenberg’s words perfectly illustrate Nicole Yeary’s career path—and this quote happens to be one of her favorites.

Nicole, founder of Ms. Tech, lives by the philosophy: ‘Do today with what you have.’ I so appreciate Nicole challenging us to remember to use the resources we have access to right now and do the best we can do. One day at a time, it adds up.

Ms. Tech ties together women, business and technology from within 1871 in Chicago, the largest tech innovation hub in the country. Chicago is the world’s capital of female founders—30 percent of Chicago’s startups are founded by women, compared to the 18 percent national average—and Nicole has now entered those ranks. Continue reading

meet melissa: milwaukee compost entrepreneur

Melissa Tashjian - Compost Crusader

One of Melissa’s proudest moments was taking the kids from McKinley Elementary School on a field trip to Blue Ribbon Organics, where her food scraps and compostable materials turn into rich compost. The kids saw the mountains of compost in various stages, felt its warmth, got to touch it and play. ”They were so into it!” Melissa says.

“I’m not here to point the finger and tell people they have to change,” says Melissa Tashjian. “It has to be something they really desire.”

I appreciate Melissa’s perspective, as she scales up Milwaukee’s composting capabilities. Certainly I’d be fast to admit I wish there was a way to more quickly help people care. Composting, growing food, remaining on the cutting edge of true sustainability—and regenerativity—of our food system are several of the big things that drive my life and career, so I am especially grateful to get to share this week’s wisdom, Melissa Tashjian style.

Melissa, 35, launched Compost Crusader in April 2014 to give food waste and other residuals a higher purpose: creating compost that helps grow more food. She’s trying to close the loop!

Starting with five customers, Compost Crusader had 15 by end of its first year and 40 by the end of 2015. Now, Melissa helps more than 60 current customers—from local restaurants to national corporations including Harley Davidson, Kohl’s and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin—turn “trash” into earthly treasure, keeping it out of our increasingly overstuffed landfills. Continue reading

meet marta: using art to save chicago’s strays

Marta Kenar, MCP Rescue and Outreach, People with Panache

Marta’s best advice: “Just keep going forward, and work hard for what you believe in. It seems so cliché, but I’ve been doing it, and it’s working, and it feels amazing.”

The summer before 6th grade, I got bit by a cocker spaniel. I saw him wandering around our cul de sac and thought he must be lost. I remembered that when you meet a dog for the first time, you’re supposed to build trust by letting it sniff your hand. At 11 years old, I was feeling brave and worried for the curly haired pup, so I knelt down and extended my right hand. It turns out that dog wasn’t interested in sniffing and took a big ol’ bite instead. I had to have surgery, wore a sling for the first few weeks of junior high, and still have a huge scar on my hand to this day.

My relationship to animals definitely changed after that. Instead of the curious innocence and blind infatuation of a child every time they see a cute, furry being, I became more cautious; I needed to trust the animal before I could fully love it.

It’s not that I stopped loving animals—there are some I love very much, including childhood pets—it’s just that now the danger of a strange beast that communicates purely in loud noise and quick movement is always in my subconscious. And the proof of the danger is permanently on my right hand.

On the other hand, I do believe that some people truly have a gift for understanding another species. Marta Kenar is one of those people. From my stepmom Karen who is obsessed with animals and has allowed every kind of pet you can imagine into our home (dogs, cats, rabbits, fish, turtle, snake, various rodents) to my best friend and PWP co-founder Alysse who truly cares about the wellbeing of every living thing on earth from butterflies to exotic wild animals to her very own new brood of chickens, you’d think I wouldn’t know anyone who could love animals more than them. But Marta may be the exception. As founder of MCP Rescue and Outreach, Marta hopes to instill compassion for animals, involve as many people as possible in rescuing dogs, and use art and music to bring youth into her mission. Continue reading

meet jamie: chicago entrepreneur taking the pet world online

Jamie Migdal, FetchFind, People with Panache

“I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur until FetchFind,” Jamie says. “I was a business owner, but I never had business plans, financial modeling or a marketing strategy. For me, I was like let’s just do this because it feels right—and it is right.” Now Jamie has more in place, but she’s still led by her love of people and animals.

For as long as I can remember, my dad’s house has been a revolving door of pets. My stepmom loves rescuing, and my brothers love encouraging her. Throughout my lifetime, we’ve had 4 dogs, 9 cats, 1 snake, 2 rabbits, 1 turtle and a bunch of fish in the backyard pond. The best one is obviously our orange tabby, Lucy, who I picked out when I was 14. And it’s well known to all of her furry (and scaly) companions that she’s the queen bee!

So when someone says they love animals, I know exactly what they mean. Jamie Migdal, lover of animals and founder of FetchFind, came up with a way to take working with animals to the digital space.

Instead of the typical route—vet or animal shelter—Jamie was looking for more connection between people and their pets. And boy did she create it. Continue reading

meet sarah: making milwaukee sweeter—and nuttier

Sarah’s favorite way to toast nuts: “I prefer the oven, but still watch it: They’re good, almost there, almost there—burned.”

Sarah’s favorite way to toast nuts: “I prefer the oven, but still watch it: They’re good, almost there, almost there—burned.”

My boyfriend gently suggested on Sunday that maybe—even just for a day—I take a Facebook break. (One more poorly fact-checked meme and I’m going over the edge, people!)

But for real. There is so much anger, divisiveness and aggressive misinformation batting back and forth across the intellectual wasteland that is Facebook—from all sides of any issue, mind you. If we’re playing pickle in the middle, I am feeling sort of like the pickle, and sort of overwhelmed, and more than sort of mad. I need a break.

So this week, can we all agree on something?

Gun laws? Women’s rights? Nah. We’re talking self care and treatin’ yo-self in the most deliciously scented way imaginable: SPICED NUTS.

Meet Sarah Marx Feldner of Treat Bake Shop, and then take a break from that smartphone bossing you around and visit her Milwaukee shop—or any of these (very astute) retailers across the country. Continue reading

meet anne: juicing for wellness in chicago

Anne Owen, Owen + Alchemy, People with Panache

“Being the person I want to be and being surrounded by people I find inspiring and creative fulfills me,” Anne says.

For the past three years, I’ve been on a health journey to try to figure out why the foods I love so much suddenly stopped loving me back. It’s like a classic text message break up: quick, painful, out of nowhere.

This March I finally did an elimination diet and discovered my biggest problem is gluten—luckily for me, it’s the trendiest of food intolerances. I also discovered I just don’t eat enough vegetables every day. I had no idea (a) how many veggies you’re supposed to eat, and (b) how few I was actually consuming. So my favorite way to get all those good for you greens became through homemade green smoothies. You can consume a couple servings of greens in one sitting, and with just a little apple or lemon, it tastes great, too. My latest favorite combo: spinach, kale, pineapple and cilantro.

I also discovered a new juice brand popping up around Chicago: Owen + Alchemy. Coincidentally, I learned that Owen is Anne Owen, a woman I quasi worked with at Modern Luxury media, my first job out of college. Naturally I had to track her down and find out how she went from being the publisher of Miami magazine to owner of a juice bar. Continue reading