Frontier stories are complicated ones, partly because they occur at the cultural crossroads of the world. Settlers and the places where they live are cast in narratives as either dens of adventure for independent thrill-seekers, or as an ominous presence populated by self-centered opportunists (usually white and Western, and often male) with colonial intents. What becomes lost are the lived-in experiences from those excluded from these tales: in this case, the story of Susannah Hawes, the focal character in Jordan Reyne’s concept album How the Dead Live.
The title for this article is from the album’s first song “From Gravesend,” and aptly describes Susannah’s position as a New Zealand settler in the nineteenth century. Though her circumstances as a settler had political and economic ramifications, her perspective doesn’t belong in either camp of the adventurer or the conqueror. Instead, Susannah is simply there, alone and isolated, fearful of the land she has chosen to live in. In this sense, she is a lonely immigrant in a world in which she doesn’t quite belong, one that seems as frightening as the roaring violent sea she watches from her home.
The precariousness of Samantha’s position is captured with dark starkness in Jordan Reyne’s video for “The Proximity of Death (Blue Eyed Boy).”
Jordan Reyne’s music has been described as “antipodean steampunk” and with good reason: she uses found noises from 19th-century factories and integrates them into her music. The creaks, clanks, and hisses add a layer of roughness to her elegant songs, like grit that gets into a factory hand’s clothes at the end of the day. Her voice and style reminds me of Tori Amos, and like Amos’ work, How the Dead Live evokes the sense of quiet dread and wonderment as a woman seeks out a new life, knowing that her presence is insignificant to History and feeling Death’s whisper in the wind.
Dark stuff indeed, but beautiful as well. After the jump, Jordan and I talk about the inspirations for her music, the difference between “dark folk” and “folk noir” and playing concerts on Second Life.
Hello and welcome! Let’s start with a little description about where you’re from.
I grew up on an isthmus in a remote area of New Zealand’s west coast, a little bit further south from the place where Susannah Hawes, the main character in the new album, arrived from England. The sea there is really violent, and there was nothing but the boom of surf on all sides. I sang along with the sea a lot, which might be why I really like environmental found sound. We had no instruments at home so I would go out and find things like bits of old iron to bang together. Metal things had certain tones to them I liked, though my parents didn’t share my enthusiasm for it. Eventually they sent me to get guitar lesions, possibly to spare their own eardrums from the growing din of my clangs and bangs.
What kind of musical training have you had?
I had informal guitar lessons as a kid for a few years. Later on I did a year of opera training, which was interesting for someone who sings rock and folk. The teacher I had though was used to rock singers, (I sang in metal bands at the time) and worked on support and projection techniques rather than opera as a style. After the metal bands, I studied software engineering, and got very into sequencers, samplers and processing found sound.
Do you draw any inspirations for other industrial artists? Any folk artists?
All sorts, yes. Nine inch Nails and Gary Numan have always been big influences, and I am still very drawn to industrial metal music like Ministry and Skinny Puppy. The term industrial can be a misleading title though, as not such a large proportion of industrial music actually uses found sound from machines and factories, so much as alluding to mechanisation through a certain method of delivery. The industrial elements I use are a little different – I go out and record machines and factories, to isolate the notes or rhythms of a particular thing, for example a chain going through a pully, or a humming engine.
I still love folk as much as industrial metal too. Steeleye Span were one of my earliest influences, and then in the 90s 16 Horsepower (now called Wovenhand). I love that a lot of folk songs tell stories. That is my other big influence. Concept albums. My mum had a stack of them when I was a kid – War of the Worlds, The Lighthouse Keeper, the Wall.
I loved listening to those.
Your website has described your music as “folk noir.” How do you define this term?
It’s an odd one isn’t it. For me it has been one of those things where you end up finding out what it means more by seeing who people are applying it to. Obviously, using folk instrumentation and dark themes fits the literal definition – dark folk, as a style, is also more or less synonymous with folk noir in New Zealand, though Kiwi’s don’t take kindly to anything with the word ‘dark’ in it, so I used “folk noir” to describe my style when I lived there. It was a style used for a lot of the bands and artists in the goth scene in NZ who used folk
instruments, folk melody, or otherwise blended traditional music with the dark themed material they were doing.
Since moving to Europe, though, people in the live scene have told me there are political associations with the words ‘folk noir’ – namely right wing ones, whereas Dark Folk is left wing. I go with “dark folk” now instead for that reason. The lesson I take from it is that genre descriptions are paradoxically fluid and limiting at the same time. In all honesty, I don’t tend to think about the genre of what I do until the point where I have to upload something onto a website, where I notice genres are limiting too. Like a lot of musicians, I try different things in each album, and prefer longer explanations on questions of style than genres allow. That makes it hard to put yourself in one single genre as an artist, and I find it difficult if I to have to.
Have you considered your music steampunk?
I first became aware of steampunk via novels, and have a few author friends who write in the genre. One of them heard “the Ironman” and “How the Dead Live” and said they didn’t know how to describe my style, but that it sounded like “some sort of antipodean steampunk”. I had not heard the term applied to music, and asked if being steampunk necessitated songs about air machines. He laughed at me, but I did like the explanation he gave – that I write about histories that never were, as well as using a lot of steamsounds and samples from machinery from the industrial revolution era. My understanding of steampunk was more from the sci-fi end, and all I knew was that I don’t really deal in impossible machines, though there is the inherent impossibility aspect with any programmed samples – real machines don’t grind and bang in exact time to what you are singing, and in terms of the album itself, History does not follow you about and argue with you about wanting to go off and find a war because your life is too boring for her to bother with.
What gave you the idea of performing concerts on Second Life?
I was visiting a musician friend and she said she had a concert. It was weird, cos I said I would help her carry her gear to the station and things but she said “nono, it’s here”. She showed me her setup in her bedroom – just a laptop and a soundcard. I stayed there while she played, and she asked if I would like to play a song, sliding the headphones over my ears as she did. It was bizarre. You could hear a sort of electronic cheering and see all these avatars on the screen, one of which was meant to be you, strumming a guitar. People were throwing money to us and I asked if it was real money or just symbolic, like monopoly money or something. She told me about people she knew who earned their whole living playing online. At the time I had just lost my part time job, and my live shows were not paying the bills, so the idea was deeply appealing.
Have you noticed any difference between performing in front of an online crowd and a physical one?
There are many differences, yes. The one I didn’t expect is the intimacy of online crowds. There is always a chat window running, where you can see what people are saying, quite clearly, even if there are 60 people there. You can reply to what they say between songs and it becomes a real part of the show, the interaction and jokes and humour. I love that about online shows. Offline, it’s very hard to communicate or hear what people are saying, so it’s harder to inject that humour directly, and humour is important when you play dark music, I find. I also really like the characters you get online. It is very different to a lot of the clubs you get where people are very concerned with looking cool and things. Online you get the fringe people, and that is really who my music is for.
Logistically, there are massive advantages too. There are no promotion costs online. The equivalent of posters is notices and you send them out free. A show online takes 2 and a half hours out of your day, whereas offline shows can take 2 days if they are out of town, and at least 6 – 8 hours if they are in your own town. So yes, I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised at how much fun, and how productive, playing online can be.
How has the virtual steampunk community responded to your work?
They are truly wonderful, supportive and creative as hell. One guy made fan videos for my pirate songs and tunes set in factories, and I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to opening show 3 different steampunk sims in the last 2 months. The sims the community builds are just stunning too. Online, all those impossible machines are suddenly possible. You get to travel in airships, live inside gigantic clocks, shoot bronze stunguns, live (and play shows) 20,000 leagues under the sea.
Your musical work is focused on creating concept albums. How do you describe your relationship between music and storytelling?
For me the two are connected like oxygen and breathing. I’m not sure how to talk about the relationship apart from to say that, for me, one depends on the other to even exist. Most songs in the world tell some kind of story. I think that I just try and really bring that aspect of it out – make it more palpable/ audible/ feelable. I like being taken away from myself into the experiences of other characters, and it is pure pleasure to try and do that with music and sustain it over a whole album. It’s a challenge and a joy at the same time, and it had
become the sort of framework I need to write music at all.
How the Dead Live is a concept album that focuses on the trials and travails of New Zealand’s pioneer women. What was the inspiration behind the creation of this album?
Actually it was Susannah herself. The album was an Arts Council commission, but the broad objective was to write something that highlighted an aspect of our history or culture. On the one hand, it made me think a lot about how history is constructed – the old cliché about it being written by the winners, but not just that. There is also the whole thing of grand narratives being preferred over the lives of those who are often quietly very very brave indeed. Susannah was just such a person. She gave up a relatively middle class existence in Gravesend, England, to travel to a new land that people know little about. When she arrived, a tangled and ancient forest stood in the way of her and survival, and she wrote that it was all she could do to sit on a treestump and weep. But she got up again. She and her family felled trees, dug land, carried on. She was extremely brave in that she lived with her fear and just got on with it. Such people are not payed as much attention as those who go off to fight in wars etc. She reminded me of how most of us, despite the fact we will be overlooked by history, are actually silently courageous, or can be.
“The Proximity of Death” is an arresting song, and one of my favorites from the album. What do you think about how people relate to death during that era as opposed to today?
Back then, and in that area, death was literally around every corner. In the town where the album is set, there was no doctor for a very long time. If anything happened to you, you had to travel over mountains that, to this day, take 2 hours to drive over with a car, to Westport. A lot of the people starved to death on the land as well. So it was an ever present threat. Today, death seems like some cruel act of god, but back then, I imagine, you lived with the possibility of it right next to your skin. It makes Susannah and the others who went there, all the more extraordinary, in my opinion.
That song also had a very powerful music video. Was it filmed at any specific location? How was the process of creating that music video?
It was filmed on New Zealand’s west coast. Even though it was a little further north than the settlement Susannah lived in, the landscape is the same. Violent surf with mountains crashing straight down into sea, and very little place to stand in between. The woman in the video, Mary McGregor-Reid, had to be tied to a tree so she wouldn’t blow off into the sea for one of those shots, because a storm was coming in and it was a 100 metre drop. The director, Eloise Coveny, said Mary was a real trooper, which fits the part of Susannah well! Eloise did a fantastic job too – all the storyboarding and cinematography was hers. She is only 23 as well. It was a really wonderful experience working with her, and an exercise in utilizing technology. She was in NZ while I was in Germany so we would talk weekly about plans and things via skype. I really think she will go far and I was lucky to get to work with her.
Do you have any plans for physical touring in the future?
Plans galore, but no funds to back it up. Hehe. I will be playing regularly in and around Germany and the UK next year, and hope to make it to the states the year after if things go according to plan. That is one of the luxuries of supplementing offline gigs with online ones –no travel expense – though touring is a great motivation to travel.
What other projects are you working on? Where else can we find your work?
I have a new album due out in June 2011, which is also set in the industrial revolution, with an alternate history. I ended up hunting out my own family tree after emigrating to Europe, and though my own family was fairly run of the mill, I found a very, very interesting side branch featuring a possible pirate, some women who fall into ruin, and a young girl who manages to go and seek her fortune despite her background. Expect more tales of sea, steam and iron.
If you’d like to find out more, or where to find my music, www.jordanreyne.com is always the central place. There are links to stores and live performances, as well as freebies for people who have signed onto the mailing list. It’s always a pleasure too, to chat with anyone posting to the blog, and people who reply to the newsletter.
Thanks for chatting, Jordan!
Readers can get a taste of Jordan’s work not only via her website, but through her YouTube channel as well.