Interview with Hermitess

Jennifer Crighton (AKA Hermitess)

In this interview, Calgary, Alberta-based musician and performance artist Jennifer Crighton tells us about her influences, inspirations and instrumentation; what has compelled her to create an album as both eclectic and accessible as the newly-released Blood Moon; and her Hermitess persona.

In her own words, Crighton introduces her current activities; “I work both as a visual artist and as a musician, and last year I produced an installation for Sled Island as part of their arts programming which included material from this album. I also played and will be playing again this year as part of their musical lineup.”

DOA: What is Sled Island?

Crighton: A music and Arts festival in Calgary

Were any other of your friends involved?

A lot of people supported me putting the installation together of course, people from Sled and from the gallery. My engineer made some special sound mixes from album material and another friend helped with sequencing the video stuff. I performed in the installation with my Witch Choir and another friend who plays hurdy-gurdy and hammer dulcimer. It was co-presented by The New Gallery, a local artist-run centre. The installation was designed to exist just as effectively on it’s own, without being performed in.

What was the performance and is there a record of it?

The installation consisted of a series of videos that I shot myself, mostly during the residency. They were projected in such a way that the gallery became a walk-in landscape, and much of that landscape is the actual one the songs describe, some in which I wander around and others just the landscapes themselves. This installation occurred a year before this release and was meant to be a kind of ambient performance for the music, with the visuals I made that were a big part of the process. Like a live show you would need an audience attending in real time to experience it, but differing in that the performance on display was the recorded album and a series of self-shot films rather than a live band. It was also meant to be more contemplative than being a show since people could come and go as they pleased, while listening and watching the films on their own time and at their own pace. The sequence of both the films and the music was randomized, so there was no obvious repeat loop.

I started playing the harp when I was 10. It’s quite possible I play the instrument because my parents took me to lots of weird hippie concerts like Loreena McKennitt while I was growing up. I also went to a Steiner School, so I did things like dance around the May pole every spring to medieval music. In addition to the grunge classics of the ‘90s I listened to my dad’s records a lot in my formative years – so a healthy portion of my musical diet was ‘60s and ‘70s classics, eclectic world music choices (Andreas Vollenwider anyone???) and some fushion jazz to boot. I studied classical vocals growing up and jazz at university for a while… before I went to art school. My earliest covers were of Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell.

You went to university and art school, was there a moment when you consciously decided to take up performing instead of another career, or were you always intending to make music?

In my case performance was a family business – in particular theatre. My mom was in costume design and my dad, stage managing and set design; my aunt was a playwright; an uncle is in set design and lighting; other family members are actors and clowns; and my grandmother even had a degree in drama she completed later in life. In a way I was going in a different direction by pursuing music and art. There is not a lot of steady money in being an independent, self-employed artist. I’m lucky my day jobs are still mostly in arts and film.

I went first to jazz school where I loved the improvisation and learning about the history of music in North America, but struggled with the majority of the “markable” parts of the program being theory and notation. I’m a bit dyslexic and despite of years of theory training before studying music at a post-secondary level, I’d always been able to kind of fool people with a good memory and good ears. In art school I was doing a lot of installation, incorporating sound and performance, and then during that time I also joined my first band as a harpist. The part of me that grew up with theatre was deeply ingrained – performing was a common point of reference for me. Sometime over the course of my education it donned on me that counter to all the performance work I had build my practice around, I am not in fact an extrovert. Performing had become second nature because it was the culture I grew up in. Hermitess reconciles my intense need for a lot of solitude with also being kind of habitually pre-disposed to perform.

Aside from Tori and Joni, which artists are a more direct influence on your own music and in what ways have they helped shape your songs and musicianship?

This is always a hard question for me since I’m not a person who listens to music with the aim of writing my own as a result, and I’m influenced by so many artists both visual and musical for so many different reasons that it would be hard to retrace which ones directly informed how I write. I’m a magpie in that way, always collecting ideas. I remember when I was learning to write songs listening to the interesting guitar and the piano of the above artists because they were transferable to the harp, but also many others. Now when I want to write I usually need a lot of quiet around me to do so. Often it’s more of a coming together of things that actually inspires a musical idea. A certain lyric when I’m in a certain mood, even an ambient sound that collides with a particular thought that returns to me when I sit down to write a song. I do now have a growing collection of world harp records. South America has a really interesting harp (arpa) culture, as does Africa (kora). My personal musical collection also has a decidedly feminist bent. I’d say the most immediate influences on this record have been the other musicians I’ve played with in the bands I’ve been part of up to this point, and the sounds of the place where I wrote it. I almost always hear harmonies when I write my melodies so I’m attracted to such, and the interesting collection instruments that were at Audities Studio where the record was tracked definitely influenced the sound of this particular recording a lot as well.

I’ve been a member of several other bands, most recently the psych rock outfit Devonian Gardens.

Can you say more about Devonian Gardens and what your input is with that band? Are you working with them again?

We’re not officially disbanded, but I’d say we’re on a fairly open-ended hiatus. People are busy doing other things, myself included. There were a lot of great writers in that band, which was both awesome and became a strain when it came to the always limited time and resources required to make records. I didn’t have the easiest time with the producer during the making of our last album, and my contributions came at a high price emotionally. I sang and I wrote harmonies mostly, and played my harp a bit later but I think it only made it onto one tune on the recording. I love writing collaboratively, but our rapport was under some strain; being the person who contributed a lot of the more more subtle ephemeral stuff, it went from being really fun to being really difficult quite suddenly. There is no denying that a bit of tension can make an interesting record, but without going into the specifics too much I came out of the process feeling pretty raw. It’s an especially hard thing go through that with a bunch of people you love making music with, and for whom you have worked really hard to make things happen. Devonian has done a few smaller things since that time, we contributed a tune I wrote that didn’t make it into the album for fundraising compilation our label put out in the aftermath of the US election, and that and another track might eventually find their way onto a 7” which would be cool. Either way, part of the impetus for Hermitess was the realization that I needed to carry my own record from start to finish, that it could be a thing I gave myself the time to do and put my resources into… that perhaps I’d been avoiding doing that for long enough.

Is Hermitess an alter-ego character and has she an existence separate from your own?

I’d say she’s an archetype I step into to tell a story that is my own, and that becoming that character helps me to articulate it. She’s a doppelganger, but choosing that name also gave me inherent guidelines for the project by narrowing the focus a bit, offering a singular voice. In my experience a character like the Hermitess works more like a kind of  costume armour, the name sets the tone for the message, and provides a kind of foil for my own vulnerabilities. She does have an existence that is separate from my own, she’s like the hologram calling card for this project and I hope she will live in people’s imagination as such.

What would you describe as the main themes of the album? Does it have a narrative, or are the songs to be taken individually?

Loneliness vs. solitude, how those two states of mind can look almost identical from the outside but are completely different experiences internally.  It does have a narrative if you listen to the songs together but you don’t need to listen to them in chronological order. And of course each song stands alone with it’s own narrative.

One of the things about spending a lot of time alone does is alters your sense of time, the order of things, and what is important. A lot of the songs deal with questioning what is experienced as real specifically concerning internal voices. Which narratives within can we trust, and which are internalized by us as a result of outside forces, and circumstances, which ones are harmful and which are uplifting. Finally how do all of those internalized narratives impact our lived experiences of the world around us.

What other musicians are involved in the music, anyone we should know about? 

I have a choir, affectionately referred to as the “witch choir” a band of women who accompany me in various formations at shows. the friends on the recording are Clea Foofat, Laura T Leif, Sarah Houle, Erin Rudling, Melissa McWilliams. Clea also plays cello on “Tender”. Each of these worn have their own amazing projects. For live shows I have a group of about 10 women including those above that I usually draw from depending on their availability and the size of group needed.

Richard Gallant is a fellow harp player who also has an amazing collection of instruments, he plays the hurdy-gurdy on the record, an instrument I’m obsessed with. The hurdy-gurdy has the weirdest scratchy drone, and the keys make this mechanical clicking sound-  all of those fascinating noises in addition to the notes.

Eric Hamlin plays the drums on the album, he’s a master improviser who has great feel and played on this record to great effect with his signature sensitivity. I didn’t want the drums to sound like “band drums” Eric has done an amazing job with that, making them much more unpredictable and atmospheric.

Danny Vescarelli my longtime partner and frequent collaborator  in other musical projects plays guitar on the few songs that have it on the record.

John Hornak co produced, engineered and mixed this record.  He also played guitars, bass and various synths. He engineered and mixed the record so a number of the low-note touches were added by him post-tracking. Johns touch as an enginner and mixer are a major part of why the record sounds the way it does

You should also know about the instruments, since there are some very unusual ones featured the record. David Kean, whose studio (Audities) we worked at, is a collector of historical and unique keyboards.

“Blood Moon” – A synth like the one Vangelis used to make The Blade Runner soundtrack (Yamaha CS18).

“Vampires” – A Bucla sili-con-sili (a synth designed by synthesizer pioneer Don Bucla, it was made  to improvise with itself).

“Animal Heart” – A beautiful old vibraphone the Degan Parsifalis.

“Obsidian Stairs” – that lovely twinkling Celesta keyboard.

Are your upcoming live shows to involve aspects of performance?

Yes, when possible I project video, and the performance often incorporates a number of handmade art pieces that adorn both the players and the stage.

Lastly, what do you see the Hermitess project evolving into?

Well, I’m hoping to tour later in the summer, and I’m playing a few festivals coming up, so that will be fun, I’ll get to keep experimenting with the live shows and the flexible nature of the performances which I am really enjoying, I’m looking forward to trying this out more on the road. In some ways the hardest part of the project is the part where I have to promote it, because it’s a lot of talking about the things I love doing, when really I’d much rather be doing them. What I would like is to continue making music and have some of the resources to do that come from the work I have already made, that’s the dream these days!