CALGARY—Jennifer Crighton is a musician and artist from Calgary, AB. As Hermitess, she creates ghostly folk music primarily working with harp and voice—both her own enchanting lilt and a choir of female ghosts that eerily echo as an otherworldly backbone. While she’s performed the project at festivals like Sled Island and Femme Wave in the past, May 12th marked the release of her debut, self-titled album. We caught up with her ahead of her release show to get the details.
You mentioned that Hermitess is inspired by “hallucinatory isolation.” The name Hermitess for the project touches on isolation a bit, but can you describe what hallucinatory isolation means a bit further?
The primary appeal of being alone is the opportunity to tune-in to the world around me on a more micro level, allowing details I might otherwise tune-out to come into sharper focus. I think it’s easy to become biased against being “idle,” to wear our busyness as a badge of honour, and therefore assume all emptinesses needs to be filled rather than allowing that space to exist in order to discover that it is not, in fact, empty at all. Especially in pop music/culture, the ideal of excess comes as part and parcel of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, where everything has to be turned up to 11. I’ve had transcendent experiences from being overwhelmed by stimuli and emotion for sure, but I’ve also had just as many if not more doing the opposite.
I find I crave a lot of quiet and a lot of time alone, it’s a big part of my creative process. These days to disconnect in itself seems like a renegade act, something that is harder and harder to do, as if we might actually cease to exist without it. All this telling why and how to listen to the record leaves me conflicted given the intended message of the music, but it’s the climate we live in, and I’m grateful for those who are helping get the word out. Do people take the time to read articles in their entirety anymore? Can I ask someone to just sit listen to a whole album from start to finish?
Standing alone in a snowy forest with the bare tree branches clacking above my head in a breeze, swimming in the ocean in a rainstorm, or biking in the springtime and listening intently to the sounds of a city as it hums all around me. Letting my own internal dialogue align and eventually comes to some kind of harmony; that’s my hallucinatory isolation, those are the experiences that get me the most high these days.
You do a lot of things other than music. At Sled Island last year, there was a Hermitess performance that was programmed with visual art rather than music. Can you talk about the different facets of the project and how you delineate something like an album from another kind of artwork?
I’ve always worked simultaneously in several different media with one practice flowing into the other; a kind of synthesis. I find myself building small universes around my ideas so the songs, recordings, videos, sculptures, drawings, costumes and still photographs are all part of the same piece from my perspective. In the past, a lot of that has remained hidden or gets delivered in such a way that I’m the only one who knows the full extent of interconnections in my work. I’ve written songs for other bands that came out of visual artworks for instance, but I never really made those connections explicit when they were delivered to an audience. I decided that for Hermitess I wanted all of those things to sit together and fully acknowledge them as parts of the same body of work, which has been interesting. There are parts of the work that have reached completion, and other parts that are still changing and growing. It has its own life-cycle and I am just following it. As to how those facets are differentiated, it’s usually a matter of venue; whether something-or-other is perceived as a bi-product or the work itself is a matter of perspective, where it is shown, who is experiencing it. Context determines what appears to be “art,” “music” or something else. I also don’t think that it’s all that unusual. A lot of the artists I admire and am drawn to work this way, regardless of what discipline they ultimately become associated with.
It’s not everyday you meet a harpist. When did you start playing? What drew you to this instrument?
I started playing the harp when I was 10 years old, but there have been gaps in that time where I did not have a playable instrument for one reason or another. I got my electric harp in 2013 and it was a game changer. I can take the new instrument places and do things with it I would not reasonably have done with my acoustic. My original harp, the one I grew up playing basically, kicked the bucket after I moved it from BC to Alberta (a big humidity change) and then gigged heavily with it in The Consonant C. An interesting fact about acoustic harps is that they don’t appreciate in value as they age the way a violin does, the tension from the strings will eventually cause them to implode. I’m pretty excited about the advent of the electric harp because not relying on a thin soundboard to amplify the sound of strings means mitigating many of those issues with tension and humidity that I have struggled with in the past.
As for how I came to play the harp: My mom took me to see a Loreena McKennitt show— apparently I slept through most of it, and then came out convinced that the harp was my instrument. My parents were kind enough to find me both a harp to play and a teacher in the small town where I grew up on Vancouver Island.
There’s a sort of haunted feeling to “Blood Moon” as well as other songs. You even call your choir The Witch Choir. Would you say you’re a superstitious person? Or is it moreso just the power of fantastical iconography? None of the above?
I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious but I do allow the things that happen to me to change my perception. I choose to find personal significance in particularly vivid experiences, and that probably more than anything is what makes me an artist.
I have spent a fair amount of my musical life a bit at odds with the “enchanting” nature of the harp, and I still cringe when someone refers to me or the music I make as “angelic,” since that implies a moral purity and level of perfection to which I cannot aspire. I have come around on the enchanting part of playing the harp however. A spell in itself is not inherently good or bad, but the intention of a well made spell is that it holds your focus and binds you to something in some significant way. I made this album and the first spell it cast was for me. When I wrote these songs I heard in almost every one other harmonies. It might have been easier to overdub my own voice on all of these tracks, but the witch choir felt like the right ingredient, and it also means that I get to be surrounded by amazing women.
When I’ve seen you play in the past, you’ve been surrounded by vocalists. Hermitess also features a reasonable sized cast of collaborators… but you say part of your inspiration is feeling like an outcast. Care to expand on that, and perhaps tell us a little about how you chose the collaborators for the record?
I still feel like a perennial outcast, but I doubt I’m alone in feeling that way. It’s also true that the thing an outcast craves most is a sense of solidarity, so there are two sides to that coin. One of the reasons I made this record was because I had been avoiding doing it for so long by letting myself fall completely into other works. I’ve been in numerous collaborative groups, both musical and artistic, and those projects have been so amazing and taught me so much. But at a certain point I came to realize that part of attraction to working that way was that it helped me sidestep having to be the sole architect of my creative ideas. I could be busy working creatively within those projects and also kind-of disappear into the larger group. I am so much more comfortable offering support than I have been asking for it; inadvertently that set a precedent for me shifting my own creative goals to the back burner. I’m not just a part of the work this time, Hermitess is unapologetically my own creation. I’ve been blessed with an amazing group of people who have supported me in this making, and their generosity to me is a revelation. Many of the people who are part of Hermitess are fellow artists who I have worked with in the past, or long admired and wanted to work with. I am so honoured they continue to be part of what I have made. I also know at the end of the day, and in a way that is different from those more expressly shared creations, Hermitess is my responsibility. I’m it’s key constant, and no one else is going to carry it forward but me, ultimately.
One more question relating to the accompaniment on Hermitess. How do you plan to recreate it live? Do you have a fixed band, pick up players or intend to give the songs the solo treatment? Will we see different incarnations of the Hermitess at your record release and Sled Island performance?
An interesting fact about this record is that is was made out at Audities Studio and utilizes many of the beautiful instruments and unusual gear that are part of David Kean’s unique collection out there. There is the low swelling drone of the Yamaha CS-80 on “Blood Moon,” the same synth that Vangelis used heavily on the original Blade Runner soundtrack. On “Vampires” there is a Buchla Sili-Con-Sili, an instrument designed by Don Buchla to improvise with itself. There are the resonant sounds of the Degan Parsifalis and Vibraphone on “Animal Heart,” and a twinkling little Celesta keyboard on “Obsidian Stairs.” None of these instruments are available to me for live shows, but knowing that didn’t stop me from using them on the record.
I’m actively experimenting with the live show format, which still regularly incorporates unique instruments in addition to my harp. Ideally I’d like to get away from being dependent on the same group people to play my music over and over again like a carbon copy. Likewise, I’m not overly concerned with reproducing the recording note for note, since that version is literally in people’s hands whenever they want it with the magic of modern technology. What I am interested in is providing something new to an audience each time I perform, so I’ll be playing these tunes solo sometimes, and also in a number of different band configurations depending on the show. That doesn’t mean that everything is random and I don’t have regular collaborators, I’m just more keen on the people being there who want to be, and that they are feeling it. I’ve built a certain flexibility into my approach to the performances, because that keeps things interesting for me, the players and the audience.
Hermitess releases her album with Kenna Burima and Dark Time on May 26 at the Sunalta Community Centre. Later, Hermitess performs at the King Eddy as part of Sled Island on Wednesday, June 21 with Les Filles de Illighadad and more. You can hear Hermitess now on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
Alberta, album release, Audities, Calgary, Hermitess, The Hermitess