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.