Carrie Able Can Do Everything

"You don't get to be a great writer, or a great artist, without going through the things that create great art."

A woman with dark brown hair lays on the floor surrounded by an electric guitar and other musical instruments.
Carrie Able first picked up a guitar in 2016. Today, her music has been streamed over 4.5 million times on Spotify. Emily Assiran for Observer

Carrie Able is a creative dynamo. She is a multi-disciplinary artist and musician working with extended reality. She is also a friend. I met her at a New Year’s Eve party shortly before the pandemic and was immediately drawn to her charisma. I have since discovered that not only is she a painter, a 3D printed sculptor, a metaverse pioneer, and a musician, but that her lyrics have the habit of breaking my heart. 

Last week, Able lent her hand (and her VR glasses) to show me her mind-bending 3D painting, Embers, an immersive work that reflects the fire of the human spirit. Like a toddler, I marveled at the layers of brilliant color suspended in the air. Embers was shown in Able’s solo exhibition during the 2022 Venice Biennale at the European Cultural Centre and soon will be audio-reactive, prompting different music to play when different parts of the painting are touched. Able has also shown at PULSE Art Fair and Art Basel Miami, and recently performed at Lume Studios in a show curated by the director of the Pace Gallery, Raina Mehler. 

Able’s single “Shield” already has over 4 million streams on Spotify, and “Paint the Silence” (which she also wrote and produced) was released today (May 5). When we last spoke, she’d just signed a record deal with AntiFragile Music’s Tom Sarig, who produced and managed Lou Reed among many other famous artists. 

A woman stands in front of several panels of artwork.
The artist in her studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Emily Assiran for O

You have so many talents. Which came first? 

I started out primarily as a visual artist. I had a lot of health issues growing up, so I wasn’t well enough to play an instrument—even though I really wanted to. I was interested in the saxophone and super interested in the drums. My oldest brother played the guitar, which I loved, and I was fascinated with that, too. But I missed a lot of school, and I would just draw a lot. 

I had a talent early on for capturing exactly what I saw. People didn’t really talk to me unless I was drawing. I would be sketching the pencil sharpener or something on my desk, and that would be the only time that boys talked to me. They looked at my art and would be like, “Whoa.” Or the cool girls would come over and be like, “Oh my God, look at this.” And then I got a little more into surrealism in middle school. By the time I was 14, I was making fifty dollars a drawing, which was a lot of money for me.

When did you pick up an instrument? 

The first time I think I ever picked up a guitar was in 2016. It’s not that long that I’ve been playing. I was totally self-taught—like, I can’t read sheet music. I didn’t have voice lessons or music lessons, so I developed my own language with this instrument and when I would talk with other musicians, they would be like, “That’s so creative. I never would’ve thought I could do that.”

Tell me about your record deal.

It’s a dream come true. It’s with Tom Sarig who was the head of A&R at Universal. He was one of the last people to work with Lou Reed, a hero. Tom was recommended to me by our mutual friend in PR, who said to him, “I think you would really like this artist.” I got an email from him asking for a Zoom call and we talked for an hour. He had already listened to a bunch of my stuff. I really liked his energy. The next day, he asked if I was interested in focusing on an album because he knew I did a lot of things. He thought that my lyrics and music were both pushing boundaries, but still very accessible, and he was confident that he and his team could take this to the next level. It honestly took me about two days to even digest.

You have so many exciting projects going on. Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

I get stressed by mundane things like laundry. In terms of my work, the more that I have going on, the more creativity just comes out, and so if I’m working on a VR painting that might inspire a song, then I kind of double down on that. The best way I found not to feel overwhelmed is to say, “no” to things that are not absolutely “yes.”

You have this beautiful line from your single, Fly. “Through the prism of weakness, my strengths were born.” Can you elaborate on that?

I’ve had chronic migraines and, when I get them, I just can’t do anything. I think it makes you more empathetic when you go through something like that. You’re kind of in a forced meditation. You can’t talk. You can’t watch or listen to anything. You’re just sitting alone, just thinking.

Joan Didion has this great essay, “In Bed” about surrendering to her migraines and then feeling a sense of renewal afterward.

Yeah, you don’t get to be a great writer, or a great artist, without going through the things that create great art. I wrote the song “Shield” from bed, trying to be grateful that I was inspired to write because I was constricted and couldn’t do anything else. That energy had to go somewhere. I think with that song, I wanted it to be inspiring—like you can go wherever you want in your own mind. I had a virus and a headache, and I remember just thinking, “Is this ever gonna end?” And that is actually the song that is the most viral of anything I’ve ever released. 

Will “Shield” be one of the songs you perform on May 11th at the Cutting Room?

Yes, it’ll be my first-ever full-band show in Manhattan. It will also include my long-time collaborators in dance, Pink Supakarn and Kate Griffler. This will be the single release event for my new song “Paint the Silence.” 

Carrie Able in her studio. Emily Assiran for Observer

Getting back to your artwork, what’s your process like, painting and making sculptures in VR? 

Painting in VR is more like drawing a sculpture in mid-air than it is painting. I wear a VR headset and paint with a virtual palette where I can literally paint with light or use sound-responsive brushes. The headset tracks my hand movements in the air, and I am free to work without concerns of scale or gravity. 

Do you think artists will be replaced by AI?

What I’ve been saying a lot—which I think has hopefully calmed a lot of artists down—is that AI can create a new Picasso, but it cannot be the next Picasso. So it can be trained on the past, on an existing voice, on an existing writer, or on an existing artist, but it cannot amalgamate something to be transcendent of the human experience.

I believe humans and computers are the strongest together. A mediocre human with a mediocre computer will outperform an advanced computer or an exceptional human. Machine learning does not have feelings or sentience, so the danger is not the AI itself but how it will affect human behavior.  As we saw the unintended consequences of social media algorithms creating a divide and highlighting confirmation biases, AI when trained with biased information will give biased results. 

What’s it like to be a pioneer in that space, as a woman? 

I feel a really big responsibility in the sense that some of my male colleagues have said that as a minority in the space, people are more likely to listen to me. But there was one time that a guy I was on a panel with at a FinTech conference (it was all men—like five men) came up to me right after we got off the stage, and in this very mean tone said, “You don’t really belong here.” I said, “Oh, well, I don’t belong. I don’t really fit in anywhere.” He laughed, and I could tell that he softened. But we shouldn’t have to do that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carrie Able Can Do Everything