Handcrafting from scratch

Cindy Hulej on Jim Jarmusch and Carmine Street Guitars

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Cindy Hulej on Only Lovers Left Alive: "I relate a lot to that movie on multiple levels. And for Paterson I customised the guitar in that."
Cindy Hulej on Only Lovers Left Alive: "I relate a lot to that movie on multiple levels. And for Paterson I customised the guitar in that." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

While I was talking with Rick Kelly at his work bench in the back of the shop of Carmine Street Guitars, Ed Bahlman was having a lively conversation with Cindy Hulej on music. The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Blixa Bargeld, Rowland S Howard and Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire were being discussed.

Cindy told me that she customised a guitar for Golshifteh Farahani to play in Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, which also starred Adam Driver. Driver is now in New York tearing up the stage opposite Keri Russell in the Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's Burn This, directed by Michael Mayer, and he will soon be seen in Jarmusch's Cannes Film Festival opener The Dead Don't Die with Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Sara Driver, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, and Tom Waits, to name a few.

Rick Kelly with Ed Bahlman on two more favourite Jim Jarmusch films: "Ghost Dog and then Down By Law."
Rick Kelly with Ed Bahlman on two more favourite Jim Jarmusch films: "Ghost Dog and then Down By Law." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In Ron Mann's documentary Carmine Street Guitars, Jim Jarmusch brings in a guitar for Rick Kelly to take a gander at. Rick immediately cuts the strings with a pair of pliers and begins to put on a new set, while they discuss the wood of the instrument. I wrote Sara Driver to ask Jim about the composition, she responded: "Back and sides are catalpa. Top is Silver Ash."

At the start of the film, Cindy Hulej is shown working on a new guitar with her original flair. Rick puts her latest creation in the front window display after she posts an image of the instrument on her Instagram account. Rick's mother, Dorothy Kelly, dusts the shop and attempts to straighten unsuccessfully a framed photograph of Richard Hell and the Voidoids' famed guitarist Robert Quine that is mounted on the wall.

In Carmine Street Guitars, Cindy holds court with Stranger Than Paradise star Eszter Balint, who stops by on a Tuesday, and Eleanor Friedberger, who sings a song on a Thursday, while playing the Traveling Wilburys guitar that Cindy designed. Cindy told Ed that it was Ron's idea to have her talk with the women. The documentary structure by days of the week might have been influenced by Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, which marks time the same way.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I just talked with Rick about all the skulls in here. They are your good-luck charms?

Cindy Hulej's Paterson guitar, a work in progress
Cindy Hulej's Paterson guitar, a work in progress Photo: Cindy Hulej

Cindy Hulej: I got a voodoo doll on my bench.

AKT: And there's a fox head? And some Christmas decorations.

CH: They all have a story. Most of them weren't, like, bought. They ended up here for this or that reason. The head I found in a box of buckles from the old leather shop that I used to work at. I was going through all these old, old belt buckles and all of a sudden there was this head. And the thing under it, we kind of made that chandelier.

AKT: I like the scavenging aspect of it all. Things are getting a new life here, or are waiting to get a new life here.

CH: I grew up going to garage sales and wearing clothes and all kinds of stuff from there. Half of it is from not having money, the other half is from just loving vintage and loving old things with stories.

AKT: With history to it. I saw in the front of the shop a guitar from the 1930s. It has a beautiful pattern that looks like that on a vintage dress fabric I bought. The wood you are using to build the guitars, as we see in the film, has had another life. That wood that started as a tree then became a restaurant table or the like in a building in New York and now you are giving it a voice in a way.

The Harlequin pattern on the Paterson guitar by Cindy Hulej
The Harlequin pattern on the Paterson guitar by Cindy Hulej Photo: Cindy Hulej

CH: Yeah, I feel like the historical relevance along with the hand-crafted part of it. It's not a factory doing this. This is a whole other level of customisation when it comes to the historical relevance. We both have a serious love and life-longing for this DIY reclaimed sort of thing.

We've been doing it our whole lives. We really understand it and have a respect for it. To have old wood and to handcraft everything from scratch - to walk the board down the street! I walked a 15 foot board down the street on my shoulder!

When you get this plank out of a house and you walk it all the way to the shop, cut it down by hand because it's so long, pull the nails out and then do everything else you do to build this thing. And then you get to strum it for the first time - it's just a totally different thing. If someone orders this, they can have process photos from the very beginning if they want, a photo album of the actual build.

AKT: Does it sometimes feel that you don't want to let go?

CH: Always! Always!

AKT: You feel that some people don't deserve it?

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) plays Cindy Hulej's customized guitar for Paterson (Adam Driver)
Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) plays Cindy Hulej's customized guitar for Paterson (Adam Driver)

CH: Not that this person doesn't deserve it, because if you're ordering a custom guitar … Some people can be a pain in the ass, for sure. I think certain people expect customisation … The reason why the hand-made thing is so cool is that it's 'hand-made'. If there's a little chip or something somewhere, that's what makes it. If it were machine-made, there would be zero anything.

AKT: The imperfection makes it great.

CH: If it's got a crack in it or a knot in it and it's working fine, like, just play the damn thing!

AKT: The film briefly addresses the gender thing, that some customers react differently to you, as a woman making guitars.

CH: I've had a lot of people saying, "What are you doing? Go to art school, you can't run a business being a luthier." But, yeah, in terms of people coming in, I get some people who are really into it and some people come up to me and say "Hey, where's Rick?"

The terrific Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Ed Bahlman
The terrific Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Ed Bahlman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I've been here seven years now and they won't even say hello to me. I know their face, I don't know their name, because they won't talk to me. They think I'm a kind of dust person. They don't even look around at the counter and say "This is Cindy, maybe she makes these?" They don't do that.

AKT: Ask people to picture a guitar player in their heads. And then ask them if they imagined a male. Are most of your customers male? What are the percentages? Are things changing?

CH: I've seen a lot more women in the guitar world, like playing and building. I haven't seen any building in the way that I do. On the pin router from scratch. Even some of the dudes that build, they are more of assemblers. They don't make their necks.

AKT: Because he was the person who is credited as instigating this documentary and I asked Rick also - do you have a favourite Jim Jarmusch film?

CH: Honestly, that's a tough one, because the first one that I went to for like the VIP thing with the red carpet and really becoming friends with him was Only Lovers Left Alive. I relate a lot to that movie on multiple levels. And for Paterson I customised the guitar in that. That was a very personal thing for me. All of his stuff is really great for me.

Adam Driver and Keri Russell star in Lanford Wilson's Burn This, directed by Michael Mayer opening on April 16
Adam Driver and Keri Russell star in Lanford Wilson's Burn This, directed by Michael Mayer opening on April 16 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I particularly love the yak hair in Only Lovers Left Alive.

From across the room, Rick Kelly shouts "Ghost Dog" and then "Down By Law."

CH: Down By Law is awesome too! They're all really good. I can't really not relate to him, personally, and I'm really excited about his new one, the zombie film. He's got a lot of people in that. Bill Murray is in it, Iggy Pop's in it, Sarah Driver is in it. It is called The Dead Don't Die. Tilda [Swinton] is in it, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover. Tom Waits is in this too.

AKT: What is this thing there behind you?

CH: Oh, Rick you already connected the Cadillac thing [hood ornament] to the wood?

Read what Rick Kelly had to say on into the woods and Carmine Street Guitars.

Carmine Street Guitars opens in the US at Film Forum on April 24 with Ron Mann, Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej participating in a Q&A following the 7:45pm screening. Additional Q&As will take place after the 6:00pm screening on April 26 and the 4:10pm screening on April 27.

Carmine Street Guitars poster - opens at Film Forum in New York on April 24
Carmine Street Guitars poster - opens at Film Forum in New York on April 24

In tribute to Jonathan Demme, who was a supporter of Americans for Immigrant Justice, Carmine Street Guitars distributor Abramorama will auction off a Rick Kelly custom guitar (T-style, two-pickup made of white pine reclaimed from McGurk’s at 295 Bowery) to benefit the organisation.

Abramorama CEO Richard Abramowitz, “Jonathan was a committed humanitarian in addition to being a brilliant artist and, of course, a music lover so we felt that this manner of honoring his more than two decades of work with AIJ would be a fitting tribute."

The must see exhibition Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll at The Metropolitan Museum of Art runs through October 1.

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