Macie Stewart’s Equilibrium

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Multi-instrumentalist Macie Stewart divvies up time between Ohmme and a batch of other projects.

(Photo: Maren Celest)

With time split among indie-rock band Ohmme, Chicago’s experimental jazz community and a perennial quest for her next project, Macie Stewart is a master of equilibrium.

To the 25-year-old multi-instrumentalist, that variety is paramount to remaining inspired. “I’ve always felt myself drawn to doing as many things as possible,” said Stewart, whose ever-expanding list of collaborators includes saxophonist Ken Vandermark, cellist Lia Kohl, SZA, Wilco and hip-hop mogul Chance the Rapper. “Every skill is built upon another skill. It takes a cross-pollination of communities to ensure that you stay creative. ... It helps things stay vibrant.”

“I’ve always felt myself drawn to doing as many things as possible,” said Stewart, whose ever-expanding list of collaborators includes saxophonist Ken Vandermark, Wilco to hip-hop moguls Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and SZA. “Every skill is built upon another skill. It takes a cross-pollination of communities to ensure that you stay creative ... . It helps things stay vibrant, as challenging as it seems.”

Raised playing violin and piano, Stewart’s foundation lies in her continued practice of classical music, which she pursued during childhood through a combination of self-study and free classes at DePaul University’s Community Music Division. That education—furthered by the mentorship of teacher Regina Syrkin—provided a path to follow beyond classical pedagogy.

“I learned a lot about discipline,” said Stewart, who studied under Syrkin between ages 8 and 19. “It requires a lot of concentration on technical skill. Regina instilled in me that there’s a lot of creativity in classical music, which a lot of peers were telling me was not true. That was inspiring, to be able to work within the constraints of Western notation through improvised music.”

Stewart found her creative creature comforts not only within the confines of the classical repertoire, but also the stalwart venues of Chicago’s improvised music community, places like percussionist Mike Reed’s multidisciplinary space Constellation, Elastic Arts and free-jazz epicenter Hungry Brain. The constant flow of creative energy across all of them, Stewart said, was catalyzed by friendships with local fixtures such as Quin Kirchner, saxophonist Steve Marquette and many more.

“That triangle of venues, that really great programming, it’s a home for creativity,” said Stewart. “It helps everyone maintain the ability to be creative in a public space. I was introduced to so many great musicians, from Marc Ribot to Mike Reed, and I was introduced to all these different ways of making music.”

With so many opportunities for collaboration, it was only a matter of time until something stuck with Stewart, and that was her introduction to fellow Ohmme multi-instrumentalist Sima Cunningham. The evolution of Ohmme was anything but intentional, a serendipitous combination of Stewart departing from her indie outfit, Kids These Days, and filling in for Cunningham during a series of performances at Constellation in 2013.

Five years later and Ohmme boasts a handful of EPs, a pair of full-length albums, is planning two upcoming tours and has enlisted a new drummer, Matt Carroll. But most importantly, the project satiates Stewart’s rejection of monotony through constant movement between studio and stage.

“Playing onstage is great, because you’re undeniably on the spot,” she said performing in Ohmme. “You fix it in the moment; it’s a level of creativity in problem solving and theater, which both of us came up doing. With the studio, it’s intimate. You dig into the elements. You analyze, knowing that people will listen to it over and over. You can get away with things playing live versus a record, but I can’t have one without the other. They play very different roles.”

With the addition of Carroll and a deeper focus on songwriting, Stewart’s goal for Ohmme’s next recording is twofold: to capture the band’s live energy and extend that communication and creativity beyond the expectations of indie rock.

“Ohmme was really just about making a recording at first. Our songwriting style is the same, but now we’re ready to play with production,” said Stewart, who cites Kate Bush and improvising violinist Polly Bradfield as creative influences. “Violin is really drawing me right now, exploring the textures, the ambient noise and what different sounds I can get out of my instrument, things you wouldn’t imagine it would make. There’s so much more to learn about it.”

But first a break—something, Stewart said, she has yet to experiment with.

“I have finally taken a lot of time to myself,” she admitted sheepishly. “I now make sure not to over-schedule myself back to back, flip my brain and change gears constantly. Recharging is critical to maintain my creative energy—and my sanity.” DB