DATE OF INTERVIEW:
9th March 2010
(Emilie Autumn on her own subjective reality)
"I think that the reality of this world that people are here for, that I live in all the time that I’ve created, that we all do now, is just my version of reality, and you have yours, and we all have them. It’s just that mine might be more colourful because it’s onstage..."
Emilie Autumn onstage at the Leadmill, Sheffield, UK, 9th March 2010
Photograph copyright © 2010 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview and Photography by Mark Holmes
Emilie Autumn is indubitably one of the most original, innovative, talented and subversive artists to emerge during the 21st century. Progressing beyond her roots in the classical genre, she has created a style of music that is both synonymous with, and lyrically representative of, her life experiences. Emilie has also proved herself adept at the written word with the recent publication of an autobiographical novel, 'The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls', a masterful literary work, beautifully illustrated by her own hand, which contains frank accounts of her incarceration on a psych ward and living with bipolarity combined with the Gothic horror tale of her alter-ego, Emily, set within the harrowing confines of a Victorian asylum. The parallel she draws between these two worlds serves to highlight not only the failings and flawed system of modern day mental health care, but also some of the disturbing similarities between Victorian and contemporary attitudes towards mental illnesses and their treatment. In fact, beyond that, the book engenders further important questions about what constitutes mental illness and exactly whose prerogative it is to dismissively brand another human being as simply 'crazy'. It is such themes, among others, which comprise her Asylum show, an anti-repressive experience that combines music, satirical burlesque, and quasi-theatrical performance.
Initially meeting up with Emilie for an interview in Nottingham at the end of January near the start of her lengthy 2010 European tour, I booked some more time before her show at The Leadmill in Sheffield on 9th March to continue our discussions. A profoundly intelligent lady, I gain a greater insight into her world as we sit cross-legged on the floor of the venue's production office and engage in a lengthy chat which transpires to be just short of an hour...
METAL DISCOVERY: The tour’s kind of coming to an end now…
EMILIE AUTUMN: [makes crying noise]
MD: …how’s the whole post-tour feeling for you? Do you look forward to getting home for some rest or do you get itchy feet and want to get out there again as soon as possible?
EA: Both; it’s a tragicomedy. It’s nice in just getting to be able to go home to my rats and little things that make me happy, but it’s also…there’s like a big depression that happens for everybody immediately afterwards. Around now, like a couple of weeks before we really, really go home, is when everybody starts to get a little bit quieter. There’s the occasional tear…“what’s wrong?”, and you know why. So it gets very dramatic. It’s pretty sad.
MD: So do you start planning for the next tour immediately?
EA: Well, I have secret plans. Whether any of my staff agrees with me on it…my plan is to make an Asian and South American tour happen because we’re wanted there but nobody’s really set it up yet. So that’s my plan and, if I have to do it myself, that’s where we’re planning to go.
EA: And it makes us feel better too.
MD: Yourself and your music are often labelled by the media as neo-Victorian; Steampunk; Industrial Gothic, blah, blah, blah…
MD: …do you worry such labels would ever compromise your individuality in people’s perception of your music and yourself as a musician and performer?
EA: That was a beautifully put question. I think there’s only one label that is potentially…not damaging, but which tends to rule out certain audiences and that’s the Gothic label. I personally don’t have anything against any of these labels, it’s just that they’re all kind of insufficient, but that goes for most people. I mean, that’s the worst…this doesn’t make sense but the worst favourite question for any musician is “what kind of music do you play?”. In all of our own minds, even if we’re not that special, or unique, or different, we like to think that we are, so I’m like “well, there’s nobody that sounds like me, I don’t know what to say”. But, in this case, it is a bit difficult because it’s kind of eccentric and it is a conglomeration of all of these things. I realise, of course, there is some practicality to this - people need to know what bin to look for your stuff in in records shops; people need to know what kind of magazine to buy to get a review of your record - so, for that, I don’t take it that personally. I think that the funny thing that’s happened with the Gothic genre is just that they’ve adopted this music, and this band, and this stage show, and the unfortunate thing…and it shouldn’t be this way and it doesn’t have to be…but about Gothic is that once you’re adopted as this thing, even if you were never a Gothic performer, or even if the show is pink and sparkly and cup cakes, it’s still seen as this thing by a lot of people. That is only damaging in that there’s just sort of this segregation between that genre and a lot of other ones where it’s like - “oh, you’re this; well, I’m not into that” or “you’re that, and I’m not into that”. The other genres, it seems like you can float in and out of. What I am finding on the good side with our crowd, though, is that it did start in Germany three years ago, like largely Gothic, because they were the first ones to whom this was even exposed; they were the first ones who even had a chance to listen to it, so it kind of became theirs. The good thing though is that now they’re coming to the shows along with all of the people from these other genres, and they’ve got no problem with the other people, and the other people have no problem with them. So, I think what’s happening is they on their own are creating this sort of different audience where talking about “in the Asylum”…which we’ll do a lot…is that that’s what it is. It’s about the Asylum environment, not you and a kind of music…and that’s why when we go on a tour it’s not about a new album or a new whatever. I mean, I’ve got a re-release, I’ve got a book, there’s all this new stuff, but it’s not the point; the point is the show, the experience. I don’t need to have something completely like a new studio recording in order to justify my being here because the audience is coming for that. So, basically, anybody can call us whatever the hell they want and I should just be flattered that they’re calling us anything.
MD: So kind of…fuck the labels…whatever.
EA: Yeah, I think that’s pretty much it. I mean, at the end of the day, I’ve got two titles: I now like to call the music “Glam Rock” because we’re sparkly enough to be, and I call the show “Dinner Theatre” because if you get in the first few front rows you’re gonna be fed and watered.
MD: I remember you saying that before and I had concerns about being in the photopit, and - “don’t tip tea on my head when I’m taking photos!” Actually, I don’t mind my head, it’s more my camera!
EA: [laughs] We’ll try! We had a talk about that the other day. Like, okay, photographers who want to get in there, do we think about that? Do they come with their own risk? I think, essentially, what we decided is, photographers should do their research to know what’s gonna happen and when, but we do make every attempt to go outwards. So as long as our aim is good!
MD: Usually, at a lot of rock and metal gigs, it’s behind you’ve got to watch because of people throwing beer into the photopit!
EA: No, we’ll do the very best we can because, admittedly, it’s not tea in the teapots, so it can get a bit sticky! I’m just warning you ahead of time to get little baby wipe type things! But we’ll really, really do our best!
[EDIT: Later that evening, perhaps inevitably, I ended up with the contents of a teapot on my head and camera lens! Not too sticky, though, I‘m pleased to report!]
MD: You obviously value your individuality as a person and musician quite highly…
EA: Don’t we all?
MD: Absolutely, yeah!
EA: [laughs] But you are right, that in entertainment, it’s kind of underrated.
MD: Yeah, for what you do, yeah. Beyond learning scales and technique, do you think a person’s life experiences can also help shape them as a musician?
EA: I think that’s almost all that shapes them as a musician. I’ve grown up, as everybody knows, in the classical world with just thousands of people who have played scales and arpeggios for years and are the furthest thing from what I would call a musician. So there’s like this fine line between your training, your life experience, your innate intelligence to be able to put them together and, really just to be all pretentious and junk your soul, and do you have the depth of whatever it takes to be an artist? Which I think is a way overused word…kind of like genius, and I wouldn’t presume to be either. I would try but that whole, like, “as an artist…” and all of that we all love to say, I just feel like I get that embarrassed feeling in my stomach whenever I talk about myself in that way because it’s like I’m a person who’s just worked really, really fucking hard to get to even be here and talk to you guys and have an audience. So there’s that but I think it’s almost all life experience. Having something to say, which is what the most important thing about art is, isn’t about morality; it has no sense of right or wrong, or anything; it’s about having something to say and being interesting, and there are a lot of ways to do that but it’s shockingly rare…just like an honest to god, interesting human being, and then interesting art, and art that actually is relevant or contextual or something to where people should give a fuck about it, that’s even more rare.
MD: You mention morality - do you believe you can have a secular form of morality in contemporary society?
EA: I think we probably do. Probably like every household almost has their own sense of what is acceptable, and right or wrong, or morality, so that’s totally interesting; I’ve never thought about it that way, but I think probably so. It seems to me like a metaphor for…in Baroque/Mediaeval times, whatever, we say right now an A musical note is 440...we generalise and say well, okay, back in Baroque times all notes are approximately a half step lower; it was 415 as an A. But if you really like study that you realise that it wasn’t always 415 - every single church in every borough had a different organ that was tuned to something different that was an average of all of these things. But, in that way, every tuning, every morality, every…and we’ve just averaged, and maybe that’s totally like in another interview…but maybe we average the sense of morality in our own countries, or worldwide, it’s like “this is acceptable”, but really we all have our own visions about what that is, which is also a metaphor for the Asylum which is about creating your own reality and saying that although this looks very strange, and like is this real; is this not; is this in your head; is this…? Or just how deeply does this whole world go? How crazy is it really? Because it can seem pretty insane, but the thing that I’ve come to about that, which I think relates, is that we all create our own realities; like every single one of us. We may not realise it because we can look at each other and say - “Okay, that chair is there, right? That chair is black, right? Right, okay.” But that doesn’t mean that we see black the same way; that we see a chair the same way.
MD: Someone might construe its purpose in a different way, like not as an object for sitting on.
EA: Exactly. We don’t know that we all see colours the same way. We know that when someone’s totally colour blind that there are gradations where people don’t even know.
MD: It’s a kind of Post-Modern mindset, isn’t it, that there is no objective sense of reality. It’s all subjective, for every single person. Anybody that tries to claim there is an objective reality is lying!
EA: Exactly. The thing is, there is no norm; there is an imposed norm that it seems to be - like the tuning, like morality - an average of what we can all bring ourselves to agree upon without killing each other, which doesn’t always work either. I think that the reality of this world that people are here for, that I live in all the time that I’ve created, that we all do now, is just my version of reality, and you have yours, and we all have them. It’s just that mine might be more colourful because it’s onstage or it might seem louder because I have a microphone to talk about it with, but I think everybody’s got their own world like this. Mine just may look a little more odd!
MD: Odd in some people’s interpretations if it’s against what their own conception and expectations of what their version of their own subjective reality is and should be.
EA: Right, yeah, so it’s like this is where I live; that’s where you live. And that’s the thing, is like as special as this might seem, I think it’s probably not that special, and not that rare, and not that different. I think we all do this. It just looks brighter!
MD: A very good answer!
EA: Thank you!
MD: You’re often labelled as a virtuoso by the media. Do you consider yourself as such, and what would you say constitutes a virtuoso?
EA: I would say yes I do; that I will totally own because, I mean, that’s like mathematical. What constitutes that is being a fucking master of your instrument and that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t make you an artist; it means that your fingers can move really fucking fast and play cleanly, and that’s something that I’d better be after twenty years in a practice room. I mean, if I wasn’t there’d be something seriously wrong and I would’ve wasted a lot of money, and I wouldn’t deserve the very expensive violins that I have! [laughs] Not the ones I use onstage but the ones at home that never come out of the house. I would have no right to play those things. So that I definitely own because virtuosity is simply technical precision, which I better have by now!
MD: A true virtuoso, for me, is beyond technical ability alone, and having more emotional depth to it, like speaking through your instrument with your emotions.
EA: That’s interesting.
MD: Like, for example, I learn Vai on guitar and it won’t sound like Vai. A track like ‘For the Love of God’, I’ll play note for note but it still won’t sound like Vai.
EA: That’s interesting.
MD: I think it’s more about expressing your emotions but also with the technical ability, which I think you do.
EA: Interesting. I will own that as well, but I don’t know. I think…I’m gonna have to think about that because I was honestly just thinking about it as just a technical thing, but maybe you’re right. Maybe it does imply an actual intent or artistic soul behind it as well.
MD: Virtuoso is such an overused term because in the metal genre, for example, you get so many guitarists who can play a hundred notes per bar of music, but where’s the feeling and emotion in that?
EA: Well, you see, that’s the thing…would I pay, or even just go and see a virtuosic player who’s just like this technical badass or whatever? Probably not, because I’m very easily bored and I don’t care; I’m not impressed by it anymore. And so, for me, it wouldn’t be a selling point, for anything. It’s nice to have along with it because the things that gave me…I mean, more important than “yay, I can play anything”…the sheer work ethic that you get from having been trained in that way will never ever leave you. It infects everything you do in like how hard I work on making the costumes correctly, or making a proper corset that fits the right girl the right way, or any of that, or just how long I’ll stay awake to write a record. Any of that stuff is just work ethic stuff that’s I think at least as important as the fact that you learn how to play music well.