What is Moodflower and how did Moodflower start?
Moodflower developed as naturally and accidentally as something can– from sheer enjoyment, curiosity and interest. It’s kinda aligned in that way. I got really into tea and the general lifestyle of grassroots herbal medicine and it naturally gathered interest.
I grew up under the influence of my mom, whose magically verdant thumb and forward-thinking interest in food, nature and health didn’t consciously shape my direction in life, but maybe implanted a latent ingrown awareness and appreciation of the natural world. A lot of my interest in herbs started when I was visiting Portland, Oregon years ago. I kept noticing that homemade medicine was really common there and I was struck by how it was so normalized and accessible— that you could make medicine yourself, start to finish, with a simple process and minimal ingredients. I was particularly inspired by a visit to an old friend and seeing the way she lived: her house was a one room cottage with an upright piano and all of these home remedies in it. I could tell that the way she lived was extremely bountiful but also efficient in its use of resources, not very wasteful or expensive. Like she was working with, rather than against, nature, and using less energy in the process. It was also very beautiful.
I don’t know how advertising executives sound when they’re talking about aesthetics and hopefully I don’t sound like one right now when I say this, but I don’t think aesthetics are superficial. Obviously appearances can be sculpted superficially and in a way that is detached from how things grow, but also I think a certain inevitable layer of aesthetic reflects how the thing grew. We can feel, no matter how much appearance is tampered with, how things come to be and what they are made of too. I believe that. Anyway, the presence of so many plants in all their myriad forms – potted, dried and hung, preserved and tinctured – was really beautiful.
I like houseplants and the effort to bring “nature” into cities. It doesn’t bother me that it’s a little stunted – full-blown thriving jungle nature is something you are often consciously giving up by choosing to live in a city. So there’s like this funny underdeveloped element to participating in and cultivating nature, at least in New York, and there’s something kind of fun about the first shaky steps towards learning something new, the ragged kind of edge of doing something yourself for the first time. I like the idea of holistic medicine— that it’s harder to do harm than good with medicine while working in such gradual increments— and that part of holistic healing is to incur a sympathetically healthy lifestyle. It’s about lifestyle– and I do not mean that aesthetically– that’s health. It comes from what you do everyday, or often. It’s a practice. I don’t even think it should be based primarily on aesthetics, but I see aesthetics as more a way to psychically feel things out.
I started reading a lot about DIY herbalism, going on community foraging trips, and drawing philosophical inspiration from holistic, magical, and intuitive approaches to herbalism, such as Susun Weed’s Wise Woman tradition, where synchronicity and mysticism and a cooperative relationship between people and plants is honored. Like the idea that common weeds found in our backyard or in the parks in our city have collective healing significance– like how Burdock, a big detoxifying herb, is rampant in Prospect Park and other parks all around New York. It’s hard to forage though because the roots are incredibly long. I see Reishi– an immune boosting and stress-reducing mushroom–growing on trees all the time when I’m out walking. Plantain is another common weed that you see everywhere– in the cracks of the sidewalk, in lawns, in parks… It’s a great wound healer and you can chew it up and make a poultice to put on a wound or a mosquito bite for pain and itch relief. I see Ginkgo trees everywhere, and often collect the leaves– they have a very recognizable shape. Ginkgo Biloba leaves work on the central nervous system and support memory, and Ginkgo is a main ingredient in the Mental Clarity blend. I also see Mugwort everywhere and often gather it to make smudge sticks— Mugwort is a well-known oneiric, meaning that it makes your dreams more vivid.
I guess I’m the kind of person who gets obsessed with learning something, and something about my single-minded immersion and my kind of systematic memory for details and classification systems attracts people’s curiosity and naturally leads to opportunities to expand and collaborate. When both my left and right brain are activated I can go on forever.
When Ester asked me to formulate blends for the amazing Sounds Cafe (RIP), I was really inspired because everything about Sounds was so all-out, fully imagined and developed, so I really went all-out in trying to make something amazingly special and unique that represented my appreciation for herbal medicine. The beauty, the variety, the casualness, the interesting herbs ranging from exotic and not well-known to extremely household and quotidien on a spice rack level that offer medicinal benefits. The flavors are not as simple as the basic rung of herbal tea that is popularly marketed in cafe’s— they were designed to be more complex and strange, but also still palatable and delicious. Their success with Sounds customers was such that Ester wanted to start selling them retail. And even as Sounds has continued to evolve and dramatically change in some ways, the teas have continued as a product that Ester continues to develop and grow as a part of the Sounds repertoire, and I’m so grateful for that. I think it’s because she really believes in them and how they grew as things, from start to finish!
Since then, Moodflower has evolved to encompass more than one of my metaphysical practices, but I can get more into that later.
What inspired the herbal blends behind the Moodflower x Sounds collaboration?
The idea that Ester and I had was to try to come up with herbal solutions to the most typical kinds of collective remedies. But also to make it special and to expose people to herbs that are weirder, more medicinally-minded and off the beaten path than the typical cafe offering.
There were 9 recipes originally: Tonic (immune support), Filter (detox), Many Moons (menstrual cycle support), Singer (throat and respiratory support), Digestive, and of course the 4 that are being relaunched– Mental Clarity, Calm, Free Energy, and Good Mood.
I really took my time creating these blends — experimenting, taste testing. The blends really did seem to have miraculous results. My ex gave the Digestive blend to his sister as a present and she experienced instant relief after being constipated for a long time. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Mental Clarity is their go-to at work and when writing, and some people I knew at the cafe swore off coffee and replaced it with Free Energy. I know Ester drinks Calm for her anxiety, often before meetings, and I personally have drank and given so much of the Tonic tea to friends when they are sick. I’ve been written to more consistently with inquiries about where to find the Good Mood tea more than any other, if that’s any surprise. I would often feel all crazy and stimulated after a tasting/blending session— some of the herbs are really active!
I’ve talked a lot to my friend who studies acupuncture about how half of someone’s job as a healer is setting the intention to heal, and believing in someone’s ability to heal. Maybe part of the tea’s effectiveness is a person’s own desire to heal in that particular way.
Something I love about herbs is that they’re often active in a balancing sense– they act upon bodily systems or organs in a way that corrects towards balance, rather than simply pushing in a static direction. Herbs also have their own tendencies and qualities, like warming or cooling, stimulating or relaxing, but it's more multifaceted than standard medication.
The idea of the teas is they can also be enjoyed at any stage of the process. You can do a quick steep and enjoy it on a more casual level, or you can do a deeper steep of 15+ minutes to get more active medicinal benefits from it, and I love to resteep the herb several times to really get everything out of it. Decoctions are more intensely medicinal (boiling herbs down for hours), and tinctures even more so (weeks-long extraction of herbs into a menstruum like a potent alcohol). But I think tea is a great way to imbibe healing– it really embodies the lifestyle element of healing. That for lasting results healing should really be embodied in small increments, regularly, in the way you live. And that way you’re drinking an herb in a way that also allows you to also receive its nutritive qualities, rather than a super distilled version of an herb for its medicinal power. Basically, to take in medicine as food rather than as a drug.
Which of the (4 recently launched) Moodflower x Sounds teas is your favorite and why?
I think if I had to choose, I’d pick Free Energy as my favorite. I love how bold it is, how the turmeric chunks looks like bright orange pebbles and how the spiciness of the ginger and holy basil is cut by the bittersweet presence of the grapefruit peel, the crazy flavor of the schisandra berry (a potently adaptogenic chinese berry known also as 5-flavor berry). I love how the safflower petals look like strings of saffron. I also love the idea of getting energy in other ways besides coffee and caffeine– and that sometimes relaxing can give you energy that feels stimulating—like it can release energy that was tied up with stress. This is a really cool concept embodied by the herbal category of adaptogens. The key characteristics of adaptogens are that they act to balance. They work upon the endocrine system to balance hormones and mood.
I love all of these blends, to be honest. When I made the original 9 blends for Sounds, there was such an ethic of creative risk and freedom— I put a lot into it and they contain that freshest of inspirations, the youthful, enthusiastic, extremely potent kind. Like a creative burst, a batch of songs bubbling up, the kind of inspiration that comes from new neural pathways firing.
Tell us about the process of designing herbal teas?
It was a very gradual, intuitive and enjoyable process, involving all my senses. I brewed herbs and tasted them one by one, researching their effects, as well as noting their effects in a controlled way. Then I’d combine them bit by bit, constantly adjusting. It was very time consuming, so experiential and slow.
I am influenced by Chinese tea ceremonies, where there’s a lot of smelling of the tea and of the empty cups at various stages of quick, casual brews, and where you are hyper present to the ever-changing nature of the tea’s flavor and energy with each steep.
I used my aesthetic sense, too. I know I already went on at length about my philosophy of aesthetics but they say a great way to judge a bottle of wine is by the label design. I kind of resonate with this idea intuitively and see how it’s a good way of appraising other things as well, from music equipment to restaurants. Not necessarily that there is a right and a wrong or better or worse, or that something that looks nice is necessarily high quality, but more that your subjective taste and experience unites in a way where all of these factors add up into something that makes sense. Your values will be apparent in the object on so many layers. I personally gravitate towards things that have a slightly unassuming quality on the surface, but also that clearly have care put into them. “Lipstick on a pig” looks and feels different from the quality that resonates from a thing’s core. There is some objectivity to recognizing quality— like we can tell to some degree when an object will last longer or not break as easily. I think it certainly is possible to find a sweet spot of a good price point and solid quality, and in my personal experience I find that often the reasonably best quality things are presented in tandem with a reasonable price point.
Tell us about a perfect day in the life of Frances Chang?
I guess I’d get up early. Get outside. Have time to meditate and gather my thoughts. Have some time to do another ritual of some kind with myself, something creative–either writing or practicing an instrument. I guess if it were an ideal kind of perfect day, I’d write a song. I’d make some money. Cook myself something nice. I’d play a great show or I’d be grounded by hanging out with a friend. I’d go on a nice, long walk. I guess that’s all still in an everyday sort of realm.
On a non-quotidien perfect day, I’d be out in the desert somewhere with no obligations, spacing out.
Aside from designing herbal concoctions, what other ways do you express your creativity?
I play and record music. I also make videos and write poems. It all feels like a poetic practice. I try to live a life that is interesting and fulfilling to me in minute ways, and I also try to achieve creative satisfaction in a broader way, although that’s harder. Honestly one of my problems is struggling with appreciating the mundanity of life sometimes, which is maybe why physical, sensual creative acts are so important to me. Like making myself good food and being in my body. Things that are basic, important to survival, things that I can make rituals out of. Even appreciating simply practicing something, like an instrument – I’m such a slave to inspiration and flow sometimes that I’m like a lost puppy when I’m not possessed by something. And I only am possessed by things some of the time. Minimalism and earthy dedication balance out my admittedly chaotic and disorganized energy flow.
I’ve always been really drawn to looking at things through a psychological framework and am a longstanding scholar of astrology, and I consider that to be a creative practice. Every astrologer does it differently, and brings an entire lifetime of experience and symbolic perception to the table.
I also have a practice in recording and interpreting dreams. I meet with a couple dream interpretation groups regularly, using a generally Jungian model, and following a really free and associative group method that has been a really fun experience and often feels as rewarding as therapy.
How did Covid change your approach to Moodflower and working with herbs?
When Covid hit, it was difficult to continue growing Moodflower along its natural trajectory as a purely herbal practice. Café’s were closed and I couldn’t keep working at the shared kitchen I was making tea at.
So over the past couple years, Moodflower has developed into a more theoretical project and expanded to contain the broader subject of metaphysical exploration. Really it’s a place to house my therapeutic interests under one unified project.
I recently started giving professional astrology readings under the Moodflower umbrella. Astrology is something I’ve studied for over a decade out of sheer enjoyment and obsessive interest. I’ve been approached a lot by friends and friends of friends for readings over the years, and taught some courses, and all the while I was still learning and turning over what it meant to me on a broader level. It’s kinda like how the whole herbal tea thing started, but more long-term and slow. Then a professional astrologer in my contacts reached out to me to ask me to do some assisting and writing work for her, and this final step of daily immersion in the artform made me tie up a lot of loose ends of questions I had about reading holistically— seeing things as a whole rather than piecemeal, and seeing themes. It made me realize that I should start professionalizing, because I have over a decade of research, experience, and hardwon original thought to offer.
It’s been a really great experience! It’s taken me ten plus years of studying astrology to even begin to understand how to really read a chart, to synthesize– for it to be more than simple addition. It has also taken me time to understand what the purpose of astrology is, and if it’s ethical– for a while I wanted to give up on it because I couldn’t really wrap my head around the value of something that just seemed to reinforce the scaffolding of the ego. I’m concerned with how astrology can be used in reductive and careless ways to narrow people’s ideas about themselves and others, or to reinforce negativity, or to concretize the future, which doesn’t exist yet. I intentionally focus on identifying life patterns and psychological structures that help to create a sense of recognition and clarity within a client. It’s about cultivating a sense of freedom within a client by noticing aspect patterns and creating definition within a tangle of complexes. Knowledge is power and I think astrology can answer the deep need that people have to be seen and to understand themselves. It’s both inspiring and comforting to see where you fit into a larger, more universally connected picture. It’s also an exercise in symbolic reality, which is the language of magic and of the unconscious mind. I think charts are such a useful tool because they help us to draw order out of the often seemingly contradictory constellations of our psyches.
I’m also working slowly on adding a small publishing element to Moodflower— poetry, interviews with artists, and metaphysical thought exploration— there are a lot of interesting, creative people around me who think deeply about similar things as I do, who wonder about the world philosophically, magically, who I’d love to interview or have write something. No idea when this will finally come together, but consider it in the works.
I still make tea, just on a smaller scale! And of course, Sounds is continuing much of Moodflower’s herbal tea legacy.
Can you share some simple at home remedies that you like to create with herbs?
I made a Skullcap tincture for sleep for my roommate who was having a lot of trouble sleeping, and it worked like a charm when he took half a dropper of it 30 min before going to bed. For that I combined about 2 parts dried skullcap to 10 parts of a 192-proof Polish spirit in a jar with the lid on, and stored in a cabinet (any cool dark place will work).
I recently made a tincture using a similar process and proportion but with fresh schisandra berries from my mom’s backyard as a way to improve my skin health.
When you make tinctures, you want to watch the alcohol level as time goes by and top it off as necessary, because some of it will evaporate. I leave it for at least 6 weeks, gently agitating the mixture occasionally– usually I try to wait a full moon cycle, from New Moon to the following month’s Full Moon, about 6 weeks, before squeezing out the remaining alcohol from the herbal matter with a cheesecloth and funneling the liquid into small dropper bottles.
Another interesting remedy was a topical pepper spray burn soothing agent that I made for another one of my roommates after a protest. She said it worked extremely well. It was an herbal infusion for a cold compress consisting of calendula petals, chamomile, lavender, marshmallow root. I steeped it for 30 minutes in boiling water to make a strong tea that could be iced and applied with a clean cloth to the affected skin area. With topical ailments it’s always best to use a fresh cloth with each application to prevent recontamination.
Tinctures are so potent and shelf stable, which make them great for more acute ailments, where faster more extreme action needs to be taken, but because so little volume is consumed (typically a dropper-full or two), you don’t get a lot of the nutrients— vitamins and minerals— of the plant. Tea remains one of my favorite ways to do medicine. For more focused healing, I’ll do a nutritive overnight infusion of something like nettle (overall health and wellness, vitamin deficiencies) or comfrey (skin health, digestive health) that I’ll drink daily for a while. For herbs that are hard to extract like hard roots or berries I’ll sometimes make a decoction and take it for a period of time. Those are more focused and potent than infusions, too, with less nutritional content as well. But honestly I’m mostly making tea, where pleasure, ease, ritual and medicine really intersect. When the intensity of a quicker fix is not on the table, living holistically and healthily is what’s left.