Creative Under Quarantine: Danni Venne navigates music-making, motherhood and haunting dreams
In our series Creative Under Quarantine, we’re asking agency and other creative execs to document their lives in isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic—the sweet and the horrible, the funny and the mundane.
Danni Venne is exec VP-group creative director and lead producer at global sonic branding studio Man Made Music, where she’s produced audio branding and music for clients such as AT&T, IMAX, HBO and Allstate. In our series' latest installment, she discusses how during the coronavirus pandemic she’s had to navigate making tunes out of her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment—all while raising and home-schooling two girls, Fiona and Cece, as a single parent. She identifies as trans-feminine and queer.
If you have a quarantine story to tell, get in touch with Ad Age’s Creativity Editor Ann-Christine Diaz at [email protected].
8:00 AM Cece is out of her bedroom at exactly 8 a.m. because that's when I told her she could come look for hidden Easter eggs. This year, I told the girls they'd be "helping the Easter Bunny" by ordering candy from a local candy store. They also put the candy into Easter eggs to further "help the Easter Bunny.” Fiona knows what's up with tooth fairies, Santa and Easter Bunnies. Cece still believes (I think). I've hidden the candy throughout the house and sleepily watch them climb over and under everything in a mad rush. I've told them that the Easter Bunny never hides things in the drawers in my room so they should never look in there. Never-ever.
8:30 AM I am making Cuban-style roast pork for Easter lunch. I made a deal with my elderly landlords (who are Cuban) that if I roast the pork, they would make rice and beans. I don't know what they do with the can of black beans but goddamn it tastes good. Terry (the wife) agrees but gives me a funny look about me making the roast pork. I'm something of a mystery to her.
1:00 PM A careful exchange of food is made outside of my landlords’ door. As expected, their rice and beans are outstanding. It's the closest thing they can have to an Easter dinner with someone else right now. I'm nervous my pork roast isn't up to snuff.
4:00 PM Someone who is close to me suggested that a slightly campy, over-the-top creative photo shoot would be a cute Easter activity for us all. The girls and I get on as much makeup, face paint and bright colors as we can. They have made fake trees and flowers and we arrange house plants and fur rugs to create our own Easter tableau. I take a lot of photos with a timer, but in many you can see the stress in my face. There were some gems and those will be cherished. We must remember to make beautiful things daily—now more than ever.
7:00 PM My landlady calls me to tell me that the pork was very good and she was so impressed. I find myself choked up and my eyes sting. Normally they go to N.J. for a big Easter dinner with their kids and grandkids. She's 82 and Andres is 83 and needs an oxygen tank to breathe most of the time. I've lived in the same building as them for over 15 years now and we've seen each other go through so much. They still call me Dan and often refer to me with he/him pronouns—but Terry regularly comments on how pretty I look so I forgive her. Right now we're the only people they regularly see (at a safe distance).
9:30 PM Too much candy and Fiona can't sleep. She needs to talk. As usual, she has questions about sex. Nine years old and puberty has started. She confessed that she typed the word "sex" into the Spotify search engine. I tell her it's ok and that I won't be upset with her for her curiosity. We have some of the most beautiful conversations about being yourself, accepting who you are, the wonders of growing up. I try my best to make these talks about sex into something bigger and more meaningful. Inevitably the conversation goes somewhere that starts to tire her out. She goes to bed and I well up again with tears. It hits me that I'm just utterly exhausted from trying to bring an old holiday into a new setting.
7:00 AM I woke up to a WhatsApp message from my ex-girlfriend in Tel Aviv, telling me about an apocalyptic and explicit dream that I was in. I'm reminded of the deep and dark imagination she has. I’ve had my own dreams during this period and one of them has haunted me for weeks. For now, I need to deal with the daily paralysis of getting out of bed and repeating a pattern that feels like a thousand pounds on my shoulders.
9:00 AM There are two leaks in my ceiling from all the rain we are getting. Fiona spots both of them, and I come running with buckets and towels. I call my dad and am immediately comforted by the white noise of his explanation about "membranes" in the roofing, and the general assurance that a torrent of water is not about to burst through the ceiling above my bed.
10:15 AM I go to the grocery store down the street in the pouring rain—which means no one is there and no lines to get in. I put on neon yellow eyeliner to match my yellow windbreaker and yellow umbrella. I'm drawn to neon colors during this pandemic and I don't know why.
11:40 AM I have been staring at a blank sheet of paper for 30 minutes while I listen to sirens go by outside my window. This haziness is common for Mondays. I need to make a convincing creative argument for how we will wrap up a significant scope of work before it sits on the shelf for a few months until we get to the other side of COVID. I start the document with the quote, "talking about music is like dancing about architecture" and then find myself writing some nonsense about "... contextualizing the work before freezing the project in creative carbonate" (I've been showing my girls Star Wars these past few weeks.) I hope these random quotes and references will make sense to someone else.
3:45 PM Due to the rain, "outdoor recess" has been canceled. Instead, my kids are having some sort of impromptu workout/dance party in the living room and it sounds like they're dropping sacks of potatoes on the floor from the top of the couch. I almost feel sorry for the young, childless couple that lives downstairs.
4:30 PM A quick Slack call with my team about an interactive installation we are working on. It's a unique frustration to right now be working on a project that has to be experienced in person and, ideally, with other people nearby. Nevertheless we press on like it's a minor inconvenience.
7:00 PM The sun came out so my girls and I go for a walk outside. We start without our masks but eventually we put them on. I ended up more tense than relaxed by the time we got home. A family of four had literally walked into the street to avoid walking too close to us, and parents everywhere were shouting out to their kids to not get too close to others. I get it, I get it, but for fuck's sake can we not traumatize ourselves as we go about this?
9:30 PM The kids are asleep and I've poured a whiskey and, with a bit of help, altered my perspective. I'm going to listen to Kanye in the shower.
8:30 AM I have no idea why, but Fiona and Cece are furiously cleaning their bedroom work spaces. They each have little desks under a lofted bed and they both decided this morning that they needed to be deep cleaned. I think I can relate. We spend so much time in these spaces that they are sacred. I tell them they can have "morning recess" because they are so awesome.
9:45 AM Cece is doing a 500-piece puzzle by herself. She says it's part of her classwork options called "family activity." I apologize that I can't do it with her but she doesn't seem to mind. Still, it weighs heavy on my heart as I try to focus on work. I need to get a project back on track after the initial creative direction veered off course. Suddenly the 500-piece puzzle feels really appealing.
12:30 PM Lunch with my kids and my heart feels so warm and big it might explode in my chest. Cece is "helping" me make her mac and cheese, Fiona is making her own PB&J. Everyone is in a good mood and I realize this is time I am lucky to get to experience as a family.
3:00 PM Frustrations become palpable on a multi-agency project, around what a shifting creative vision means to the work and the creators who have been working on it for months.
4:30 PM I need some space from everything. Holy fuck the walls are closing in. The house is a mess and the kids need attention, and I can't figure out how to give it to them. I don't want to cook dinner and wash the dishes again. I just want to lay in a field somewhere outside and have someone cook for me. I feel a tightness in my chest and my eyes sting.
6:30 PM I'm cooking dinner and get a call from one of our composers. The vocalist they are using is asking about more money, and asking why I am asking for so many options and, I imagine, probably wishing I let the process unfold a bit more naturally. It's not explicitly said but I can read it in their tone of voice. I reassure them that I have faith in the process and that I won't ask the vocalist to do more until I take another look at the fee. People want autonomy right now, but they also fall into their own patterns of thought and stay in their comfort zone.
7:00 PM Spaghetti Carbonara for dinner and we finish watching The Phantom Menace. We are watching all the Star Wars films (in the order they were made) this quarantine. The girls loved "A New Hope" and "Return Of The Jedi." It resonated with them and they want to be Luke and Leia for Halloween. After we finished "The Phantom Menace" Cece asked in all honesty, "so.... was there a plot?" No Cece, there wasn't a plot. Or a protagonist. And you could have written a better script and you're just in first grade.
9:00 PM I can't seem to remove my gel manicure from pre-COVID times without the industrial strength chemicals. I paint my toenails neon yellow instead, and then decide to just add a hot pink stripe to my nails over the silver gel color that is there. I want more neon. Pinks, yellows, greens.
8:30 AM I walk the kids over to their mom's house. She's more insistent about face masks at all times so we gear up for the walk over. It’s cold and grey out but, as usual, Fiona goes, "It’s so nice out!"
11:00 AM I have a quick call with a co-worker whom I've known for many years. It's too exhausting to repeat the list of stresses and complaints and fears. Instead we get into work details.
1:30 PM I heat up leftovers for lunch and the house feels so empty and cold and quiet. I miss my girls horribly.
6:30 PM A client calls my cell phone and has a fire hose of comments that I do my best to field. All of his comments are a result of us not being able to physically install and demonstrate this new environmental soundscape on site in a way that makes sense. Sending him a flattened mp3 of an installation isn't ever going to cut it. I start to convince him to connect on a Zoom call, where I can share my screen and walk him through the audio routing we have planned, but he had to cut the call short because his daughter has dropped a full water balloon on his kitchen floor.
6:55 PM I place a last minute order to the local wine store to pick up a shameful amount of wine bottles for one person.
7:30 PM I try to take a walk around my neighborhood but it's too cold and everyone looks exceptionally angry. I come home and call my parents who are quieter than usual. My mom has to have a CAT scan on Friday for a tumor on her kidney. We've been dealing with this for years, so it's not news. But the thought of them getting up before dawn to drive two hours to the hospital, eating all their meals in the car. It's too much.
8:30 PM I FaceTime with some trans friends of mine. I’ve known these trans-folks for several years. We all grew very close by doing the very opposite of staying in … we went OUT. We went out to be seen, to establish our identities, to claim a space for ourselves. It’s a strange experience to now have to connect in our isolated bubbles at home. We are all at different stages of our journey. Some call it a transition, but I think of it as simply becoming your authentic self. For some of these friends, this time alone gives them the space to grow into that new self. For others, this isolation closets them further from the need to be seen by others. Nevertheless, we all support each other however we can.
9:00 PM I dive into a visual art project. I have been obsessively making art about a dream I had four weeks ago that still haunts me. I'm using polymer clay in an unorthodox way to recreate this scene—it's me holding a stone and staring into the sky. A wolf is at my feet, and there is a floating decapitated rabbit's head behind my head that I can't see but know is there.
Before pandemic lockdown, my dreams had a very similar pattern: I am late getting to the airport for a tour that's about to leave. I don't have all my guitar pedals and I haven't relearned any of the music for the tour—some variation on that, and then it just gets more stressful and frustrating from there. This dream, though, was much darker and vivid. There was a foreboding feeling of fear and a landscape that I can still see. So I keep trying to capture it visually.
I have some music I've been working on since December and when I go back to it I feel like it was prescient of the dream. It's dark and sparse and has an edge of anxiety to it. I keep going back to that music, too, and instead of adding to it, I take away. I keep stripping elements away and discarding them. I'm left with very short ideas with only 3-4 sounds. I'm excited by my creations though. I may not be able to plan more than a few days out, but creating puts my spirit at ease.