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A conversation with Hether Fortune
/ by Jes Skolnik

Hether Fortune has been making music with her band Wax Idols for about five years, in addition to playing in Blasted Canyons, White Lung, Hunx and His Punx, and Bare Wires. None of these projects are by any means her first. We've been internet acquaintances for a while via our overlapping social circles, and I've admired her musical work for quite a while. When I wrote an essay for the Talkhouse earlier this year on writing and performing music, she reached out to me to talk about similar experiences, and we started to bond and to really become genuine friends.

Wax Idols are set to release their new record, American Tragic, on Collect Records on October 16, an occasion that led me to think that perhaps some of our conversations should be expanded upon in a public arena. On an August night, we talked for nearly two hours, lost track of time, and went really deep on a lot of different things. Follow on to read some of the more relevant excerpts: we talked about trauma and the creative process a lot, but also body image, performance, boundaries, social conventions, and a shared love for/frustration with Prince.

{on the creative process and the new record}

JS:There's been a gap between the last record and this one, and a lot happened for you personally during that time. I can guess that that probably shaped a lot of what's on this record and how it sounds? Let's talk a little bit about that.

HF: Yeah. Well, god, where do I even start. I was working on this record, actually, not very long after Discipline and Desire came out. I was getting myself in the zone pretty quickly after the last one came out. And that was when I was newly married and everything. I remember doing an interview with somebody and I was talking about doing the next record, and the title that I had in mind for it, for whatever reason, was Loss. And I was a newlywed.

It feels really weird to say this now, and obviously I've changed the name of the album and stuff, but thematically it's the same, and it's almost like I knew what was coming, you know? Like I was kind of gearing up for - I knew that thematically this album was going to be me dealing with working through some really, really heavy stuff, like old stuff, old wounds, trauma, and - I just knew it. And I knew it was going to be specifically relative to dealing with loss and abandonment and stuff, I just didn't consciously know at the time, when I first started conceptualizing the record, that the catalyst would actually be my divorce. (laughs) In hindsight, maybe my subconscious really was trying to be like, "Hey, guess what." [laughter]

Sonically, though, I don't know why or how this record turned out to be so much different than the last one, just like I don't really know why Discipline and Desire was so different from No Future. I just kind of keep cruising, you know, I do what comes naturally to me at any given time. I'm always just trying to push myself as a songwriter and as a musician. With my last record I was trying to show off a bit, musically, you know? Look, I can do all this! I can play all these crazy guitar parts! I can do crazy noise guitar and really intricate melodic guitar! And I can play bass! And I can play keyboards! And I can sing all of these crazy harmonies! I was really just flexing my technical muscle. And on this record I'm just kind of chilling.

JS: On this record I like that your voice is more up front and more centered in the mix, it's got less effects on it. Your voice really reminds me of Toni Halliday's, from Curve, which is really cool to me.

She has such a unique voice, and you have such a unique voice, and it was just really cool to hear that, because I can actually hear your voice.

HF: Yeah, that was an intentional decision as well, and I struggle with it, because I've never been the most dazzling singer. But I was really tired at this point of being insecure about it. I was like, "You know what? Well, I'm a fucking singer. Whether my voice is perfect and beautiful or not, I write songs and I sing them...So I may as well just go for it and stop being so embarrassed and insecure and afraid that my voice doesn't sound the way I think it should sound, and just let it be what it is." So that was a conscious decision and it was a hard one. All the way up until the end of mixing I was like "Ugh," really having to resist being like "Put more reverb on it, put more reverb on it!" [laughter]

JS: (laughs) Yep, yep.

HF: "No, no, resist! Resist!"

JS: I'm the same way.

HF: But I'm really glad I did. [laughter] It was hard.

JS: Yeah, I'm really glad you did too. I think having your voice really up there, front and center, really contributes to how intimate a record it is, and how honest it is, and how immediate and emotional. It's a gut-punch of a record. If your voice was more hidden I don't know if it would be quite that way.

HF: Yeah, yeah. I agree. And that's why I did it, 'cause I knew that it was that kind of a record.

JS: That was a very wise decision.

HF: Yeah. What's weird is when I say, like, "I don't know what I'm doing! I don't know why these songs sound this way!" That's definitely true when it comes to writing, like I don't have an agenda, but once the album is in motion - I mean, I'm a producer. I go into full-blown production mode, and I'm like, "Oh, these songs won't come to life properly if I don't work them in these specific ways." And I knew that with this record, with songs like "I'm Not Going," it would have been really fucking easy to just lay the reverb on thick on my vocals, because it's sparse and minimal, and I was just like, "Nope, this song won't come to life. It will be a cop out unless I produce it the right way."

JS: Totally. I think about that a lot when I'm writing as well, and I'm in the studio and I'm working on songs, that it's really about letting the song grow, you know, letting the song grow into whatever it's going to be, instead of trying to force a structure down onto it, and making aesthetic decisions in post-production that allow it to grow.Especially when you're writing stuff that's so emotive. A lot of the stuff that I write, obviously, is very grounded in working through my own shit, you know? Having music as an outlet, and having music as a mode of expression. Sometimes I don't feel like I can express myself adequately, even through words, but I can express myself musically. I feel like you might kind of have the same direction when you're writing in some ways?

HF: Yeah, I would say that's definitely true. There are definitely things that I can't - there are still things that I can't say that I can only say through playing guitar.

JS: Right!

HF: Or composing some other piece. That happens a lot. One of the main things that I love about guitar specifically is that when something is too hard to speak or to sing, I can just kick the distortion pedal on and freak out.

JS: Totally.

HF: The way that I play guitar is not uncommon - I think it's a stylistic choice - but I've always been drawn to more angular weirdly rhythmic noise guitarists who are also capable of melody and structure, like Andy Gill from Gang of Four - or, of course, Daniel Ash from Bauhaus and Love and Rockets - to be able to be really lush and expressive and to be able to portray power and aggression without wanking, you know?

JS: Right! Right. That's something I'm also extremely drawn to, and I think it's why I am so in love with post-punk, because of the balance between instrumental aggression and control.

HF: Yeah. I hate wankery guitar playing. I've never been drawn to it at all. I don't like wanking in any capacity, actually, on any instrument. I'm not really into the self-flagellation or whatever. You know what I'm saying - "Oooh, check me out, I can shred really crazy." Like, ugh, shut the fuck up, I don't give a shit. Great, cool. To me there's nothing artistic about that. That's just technical ability. It's not art.

JS: Right. Like, I could be reading a technical manual instead. It's not interesting to me at all. There's no emotion there. I guess the thing that I come back to whenever I'm writing about music or whenever I'm trying to write music - it's interesting, being someone who writes about music and also being a musician, I find myself trying to conceive theoretically what makes a piece of music work, both verbally and sonically, and the thing I find myself coming back to - it's a thing I keep coming back to listening to your record - is efficiency. Like, the music that I love the most is also the music that's the most efficient.

HF: It gets the job done. Right. Job done, move on.

JS: Right. You don't need to go in there and show off, you don't need to go in there and do a gazillion things. It's just not interesting to me at all.

HF: Right. I know that's interesting to some people, and that's fine, that's really fine. Definitely not for me at all either, though. Where I'm interested in technical music is in construction. That's where I'm interested in nerd time. Because the song is there, and then you just get to play with it. And that's why I think production is such a great art. It is super nerdy, but you have all these amazing tools that you can use to completely transform a piece of music into something totally different. It's wild.

JS: Absolutely. I am interested in production both in the front end and the back end. I build pedals, I love building pedals, I love fucking around in the studio and just making weird synth patches and trying to eke whatever bizarre sounds I can out of something and helping that grow into a song, you know? And then on the back end, like you said, once the song is done, filling it out, letting it grow, letting it be what it's going to be. Both of those aspects of studio nerd shit are really cool.

HF: Yeah, well, it's limitless, you know? You can do anything. I was in San Francisco for about ten days recently, just rehearsing with the band and hanging out with the drummer of Wax Idols, Rachel.She built a modular synth this year, which is awesome. I didn't even know she had any interest in synths, and then all of a sudden she was like, "I built a modular synth!" I was like "Sick!" So we spent some time messing with that when I was staying with her. And then we went into the studio - 'cause the guy that has done all of the Wax Idols records, it's the same guy, Monte Vallier, who is amazing, and we went into the studio with him just for fun. We brought in the modular, and a drum machine, and just went in for no reason. Not to record Wax Idols stuff, or for any specific thing, but just to see what we could do. And we just went into total Kraut-doom land for like seven hours.

JS: So cool!

HF: Yeah! It was so fun! It was great! We built a couple of synth patches and just fucked with them, and we built drum loops to go around them, and we brought in a Juno. We were sitting there just talking, and I was playing the same thing for like 29 minutes. Afterward we were like "Let's see what we can do with this," and we just cut it up and played with it. Just for fun! That stuff is what I love most about music, really - you just go into a room and you just make something. It's so rewarding. It sounds so stupid, but it's so rewarding.

JS: It really, really is.

HF: You just go in and there's three people, or two people, or one person, and some stuff, and then you plug it in and fuck around with it, and when you leave something new exists that wasn't there before.

JS: Right. It's really magical. That's the closest that we get to magic, I think.

HF: Yeah, it is! It absolutely is! I personally think music is more magical than visual art or tangible art because you can't touch it. It's soundwaves. We're creating things that - once they're recorded - they can be replayed - but it's all in the air. It's in the air. You can't even touch it, you can't put it anywhere, it's a sound. And that's way more magical than a painting.

JS: Yeah, I totally agree. And even as a writer, I think it's way more magical than writing. Writing can be very static. Not that pieces don't evolve, but once a piece is on paper, it's on paper. You can bind it, you can read it, you can revisit it, but it never changes. But the coolest thing about music is - even if there's a recording, and you listen to the recording over and over and over - you can always perform it, you can remix it, you can do different versions of it, and that song is always alive. It's alive in your interpretations of it, and if other people choose to do interpretations of it - it's just a living, breathing being. It's a little golem. It's the fucking coolest shit. [laughter]

HF: It is, it is. I've always felt like - it's really common for people who have solo projects or whatever to be like "Oh, this is like my baby," but I mean it quite literally. This is my baby. This is a real living thing that came out of my body.

JS: Right. Right! Because you did. You made it with your hands, and you are constantly making it. It's constantly growing. When you were talking about being in the studio with your producer and with Rachel, it made me think of this thing I've been doing with my friends. It's the goofiest most fun thing, but our practice space is a couple blocks from my house.. And I go over there all the time. I've been working on some solo stuff too, so I go over there sometimes just to fuck around by myself and write songs. My partner's band also practices over there, and this assorted group of friends - his band, my band, a bunch of other assorted musicians that we know - we've been doing a monthly covers compilation where you just pick an artist and you go into the studio space - nobody practices, nobody puts anything together, you just play a cover together and you record it, basically the first take if things work out. And then everyone listens to them. And it's so much fun.

HF: That's so fun! That sounds so fun.

JS: Yeah. it really allows songs to be living things. You're reinterpreting these songs on the fly, as you go, with your friends. We did David Bowie last month and we did The Fall this month, and it's just - it's the most fun.

{on attractiveness, presentation, performance and gender in music, boundary violations, and also prince}

JS: One of my automatic push-buttons is when people talk about a woman's appearance before her work, or as an evaluation of her work - because it has nothing to do with it. Your appearance can be part of your performance, it can be part of your stage show, it's part of your presentation - but don't fucking evaluate someone's music on that. Don't evaluate someone's WORK on that.

HF: Yeah. I mean, you wouldn't hire a person for a job because when they came in to do their PowerPoint presentation they used a blue binder, you know? You're going to hire them based on the research they did, the work they actually did, not based on what color the binder was that they put everything in. Who even remembers that? Nobody. But if you're a girl, or a woman, or a femme person in any regard, and you're on stage or doing anything in the public eye at all, if you're an anchorwoman, if you're a government official, if you're a politician, if you're doing anything...

JS: If you're doing any kind of public speaking...

HF: Anything. Anything where you're in the public. The first thing they want to talk about is how you package yourself, how you look. That's it. It's just crazy. I don't know when it's going to stop. And there's always the constant, "Well, if you don't want me to talk about how you look, you shouldn't dress like A, B, C, or D." Well, oh, okay.

JS: No, no! That's not the point. Like, I can put whatever the fuck I want on my body, and you can talk about whatever I have on my body, but you can't use it to evaluate the quality of what I'm doing. Those are two very separate things.

HF: Very different. It's crazy. If I read one more live review that starts off "Her tall, willowy, androgynous figure draped in black mesh," blah blah blah, like - can we get to that later? Maybe in a sidebar? Why does this have to be the lead-in to your piece about what my abilities are as a musician? How is this relative? I don't understand.

JS: I like watching musicians communicate with one another, but when I'm watching a live show I have my eyes closed a lot of times because I'm thinking about how the music is mutating as it's being played. I like when you go to see a live band that it won't be exactly like the studio recording. I like thinking about how the music is growing as people are playing it, where the differences and similarities are, how I'm emotionally responding to it - because being in a room with music, being in a room with those sound waves, is so huge. If I'm writing live reviews I try to write about that. I think that's the most important thing about live music. So it drives me fucking bananas. And reviews of dudes are never like that. If their appearance gets mentioned, it's never the first thing.

HF: Yeah. And let's be real here - their appearance is almost never in it. Lenny Kravitz's dick popped out, and they wrote about that, and that's news, I get that, that's hilarious - but if a dick hasn't fallen out, there's basically no description of how male performers look. Ever. Even the most effeminate crazy-looking male performers, unless they're openly queer, they don't get talked about in the same way that queer men or women do. Even Prince! Still. He looks ridiculous. He's like a leprechaun dipped in Kool-Aid. And still - nobody starts a review of Prince with what he's wearing.

JS: Right! He's basically got to be buttless, like at the VMAs that year.

HF: And even then it's not the lead - it's like "Prince wows audience! Prince premieres new music video! And also his outfit is buttless." Something could be said about how maybe everyone had just become so used to Prince being so over the top at that point, maybe, at that point, but I think that it had a lot to do with the fact that he's a heterosexual male.

JS: Yep. Who is very into talking about how he's a heterosexual male.

HF: Right. Actually, I wanted to talk about him anyway, because as a multi-instrumentalist producer control-freak person, I really claim Prince. I fucking love Prince. Prince is my person, this is my person. And the stuff that's he's said - he's said some weirdly homophobic stuff. He's been kind of shitty to women, and I don't know what his deal is.

JS: I know. It sucks. It really sucks.

HF: He's a Jehovah's Witness, now, too?

JS: He's become very conservative over the years. He sometimes has this attitude like, "It's ok for me to do these things, but not for those people." Ew, what the fuck, Prince. Do you realize how many of those people love you?

HF: Yeah. Has he realized how much of his fanbase is made up of queer people? Get real, here! Who's watching Purple Rain? Who's still watching Purple Rain? It's not bros and girls dying to bone you. Who do you think is watching Purple Rain? It's all the queers.

JS: It's all of us.

HF: It's all of us. No one else. Not now.

JS: Some day we need to really process our Prince feelings together, because it's a lot. It's so disappointing.

HF: [laughter] Yeah.

JS: Yeah. But like . . . appearance. It's so fucking frustrating. Especially when you do take so much pride and care and you put so much work into how your sound, your tone, the structure of your songs, your live sound. It's so frustrating to be reviewed as if your costume is more important than who you are.

HF: It is really frustrating. I'm someone who, during sound check, I am thorough. While the band is playing, I'll jump off stage, get into the crowd, walk around, see how it sounds from every angle. I'm really specific with the sound people. I know how I want every nook and cranny to be treated, to be mic-ed. What the levels are, how it's all balanced. I put so much into how everything is going to sound. My main concern is not doing my hair and making sure I look sexy. And if I happen to look sexy, because I'm fucking sexy, that's fine. But what I'm focused on for the show is performing, and making sounds. I'm thinking about being a musician. I'm not thinking about being a sexpot. Even when I'm actively being someone who is being really technically aware and proficient and on top of it, I'm still someone who looks pretty messy and androgynous and weird on stage. I very rarely look smokin' hot when I'm playing a show. It's just not my vibe. And I'm still sexualized in weird ways. For a while I was performing kind of topless, I was wearing these see-through bodysuits and no bras and stuff -

JS: Yeah! The last time I saw you at the [Empty] Bottle you were wearing an outfit like that.

HF: Oh, you were at that show! That's cool.

JS: Yeah. I remember thinking that it just looked cool in sort of a pure aesthetic way, a nonsexual way. Just in terms of your body and your movement on stage, I appreciate that aesthetic.

HF: Right. It's not about being hot.

JS: Actually, right around that same time, the band I used to be in - it was the first time Iceage toured the US, and the band I used to be in played with them in this walkup apartment that was up four floors of stairs, and it was the hottest I've ever been at a show. 200 people in a fourth floor walkup and all the windows were closed because they didn't want the cops to come and it was in July or August. It was the hottest I've ever been playing music. And a bunch of other musicians had taken their shirts off, and I was just like "Fuck it. I'm going to take my shirt off too." I was wearing a bra, it was just like a bikini top, nothing too intense.

HF: Why not!

JS: I was like "This is NOT about being sexy, I'm DYING OF HEAT." I looked like a tomato.

HF: It's really hot on stage! I would like to think I'm really really really anti-the stigma that comes with women having their shirts off. What's the big deal?

JS: Who cares!

HF: I know the issue is really passe at this point, but it's something I really care about, and that's why I was performing like that for so long. People can deal. I'm just a person, and this is aesthetically what I like. I like to have sheer optical illusion stuff, and to have people be able to see my body, how it's working, how it's moving - and not in a way that's supposed to be sexually stimulating, I just want people to see how my body makes music, and I like the aesthetic of being barely veiled in this dark, aesthetically pleasing way. Like, Daniel Ash - that's what I wanted to be. I like seeing bodies moving. Lines, the cut of your outfit, the way that you are positioning yourself on stage, the way you're moving with your instrument. All of those things should be working together. And that's what I like. Just because I have breasts shouldn't mean that I'm not able to embrace that same aesthetic expression. It's stupid.

JS: Right. You should be able to look at me without seeing that first. You should be able to look at all of my body in context.

HF: Right. And more importantly, if you look at my body, and you do have sexual feelings, you should be able to control yourself.

JS: Right. Not my problem.

HF: Right. Nothing about my body, or anyone else's body, is offensive. The only thing that's offensive are other people's thoughts, or the way they choose to act on them. People need to be able to control themselves. That's what's offensive, if you can't control yourself.

JS: Yeah. I've actually gotten to the point where I've been wearing not-very-much clothing on stage sometimes as kind of a giant fuck-you to that whole idea that I'm too fat to do that or that a bunch of dudes can evaluate how I look and judge my music passable based on my fuckability or whatever. So I have this little goth romper thing, and I was wearing it at one of our last shows. It's very comfortable, I feel very comfortable in it, I like to move in it. I used to dance, so it feels like a dance unitard to me. So I was getting out of my car and carrying my guitar and amp, and this car full of teen girls drove by, and I heard one of them say "That would look cute on a skinny person."

HF: Ewww.

JS: I just thought to myself "This is why I'm wearing it." And then like two cars later there was a guy who catcalled me, like "Hey baby, nice ass." And I was just like "Yeah, this is exactly - I should be able to exist in this outfit without all of you having some kind of feelings about it."

HF: Or if you do have feelings about it, keep it to your damn self! I think everybody needs to learn how to do this. Everyone needs to learn this - if you see somebody, and you process their appearance in whatever way, keep that shit to yourself. Nobody needs to know what you think about how they look. It doesn't need to happen at all, in any way. And if you're in conversation with somebody, and you want to be like, "Hey, I like your dress," or "Interesting choice of shoes, where might one find shoes like that," that's fine. But just randomly spewing your idea or thought about how somebody else looks out at them, it's just - no. no.

JS: No. Not anyone else's business. It's gotten to the point where I don't tell people they look hot, even, really. Just, like, "Your aesthetic's awesome."

HF: Yeah. I just say "You look great. You look really healthy, happy! You look good." That's basically all I say.

JS: Yeah. Or, "That's a cool outfit." Something generic and positive that doesn't evaluate your body in terms of anyone else's, on any kind of hierarchy. Something not invasive.

HF: I can't imagine going to see you perform and after you got off stage being like, "Hmm, really interesting choice of outfit that you wore tonight, Jes. I don't know, it doesn't quite fit you well." Who does that!

JS: Right. Who the fuck does that.

HF: Who even thinks that way at all. I don't understand it. It's one of those things about humanity that has just never made sense to me. I don't get it.

JS: It doesn't make any sense. I feel like people are in each other's business a lot in very intimate ways, because our society says it's ok to do that, but it's really not. We're just constantly violating each other's boundaries.

HF: Oh my god! So many boundary violations happening, left and right. Everywhere you go. "Ooh, there's one! Ooh, there's one." Just constantly.

JS: Constantly. It's so bizarre.

HF: I mean, I'm subject to it too, I'm no saint. If I'm drunk and somebody that I think is interesting-looking or something comes near me I'll be like "HEEEEY, YOU LOOK REALLY COOL. WHAT'S UP." I'll touch their hair, or something. We're stupid. [laughter]

JS: [laughter] Right. That's how we're trained to interact with each other. This is how society says we're supposed to compliment each other and bond. It's crazy. I am certainly not exempting myself from this shit.


{on trauma, the necessity of art, survival, and utterly ridiculous packaging}

JS: American Tragic is constructed with such care that other people that are listening for the truth in it will hear it.

HF: Good. That's all that I really want out of this record. That's why I made it, to heal myself. I wanted to die, you know? It was the worst. I wanted to die, I didn't know what was going to happen to me, my entire life fell apart. I was just like, "This is the one thing that I can control, this is the one thing that I can do that nobody can take away from me." So I just poured myself into it - like, this is what I have to do. I'm just going to do it. I'm not going to fall apart, I'm not going to fail, it's not going to suck, I'm not going to be afraid. It really saved my life, working on this record, for sure. I was not in the mood to live, really.

JS: Yeah. And I'm so glad that it could be that for you. I'm so glad that you had that. So glad.

HF: Thank god. It has a totally ridiculous title though. Nobody has talked about that! I'm just waiting. I'm waiting for that. It's called American Tragic, can somebody please start cracking some jokes?

JS: Yeah. It's utterly ridiculous. [laughter]

HF: [laughter] It's way over the top.

JS: When I first saw it, I was like "Oh man! This totally has a shitty horror movie aesthetic." Which is great.

HF: That's exactly what I wanted. I was like, "This record is going to look and be packaged like it's some fucked up horror noir film that's kind of cheesy and kind of over the top but really excellent." You're going to fucking rent it or watch it nonetheless. I wanted the artwork to be like an old-school movie poster. Graphically, that's exactly what I wanted.

JS: Yeah. I totally envisioned one of those giant display Blockbuster boxes from VHS days, before they slimmed them down, with the shitty plastic cover on them, and you're picking it up for a sleepover, and you're like "Ooh, what's this gross dark thing."

HF: Exactly! Exactly. The tour posters are going to be like movie posters.

JS: Awesome!

HF: It's going to be the album art, with the album title, American Tragic, and then underneath we'll put the credits. Like, the info for the movie - it'll be set up the same way. It's going to be shiny and huge. That's what I want. I want it to be like a movie. And the reason why - it's not purely aesthetic. That is what this album is. It was me stepping outside of my life, being like "Is this real? This is not even real. How is this my life?" That's the only way that I was able to get through it, was to detach from it and to turn it into something ridiculous, comedy-tragedy style. I had to become the puppeteer, basically, and put on the sad comedy hour. To me it's like a joke, almost. There are so many layers wrapped up in what this album is for me. I listen to certain songs and I laugh! I laugh at them. It's ridiculous, you know?

JS: Totally. I have thought for so long, because I do so much writing about rape culture and trauma and whatnot, I have tried to make the shit that I have gone through intelligible. I write about it in music, I write about it in essays. And I try to make it not only understandable but beautiful. All of the fucked-up shit that happened to me. I was talking to a friend of mine who does TV criticism, and we were talking about how badly entertainment handles sexual violence, and we were talking about the possibility of writing a really dark comedy show about rape survivor shit from the perspective of a rape survivor. He was like, "That's you, you've gone through this, you've had to use comedy to get through some days."

HF: Right! It's a survival tool. There's no way else to get through. It's impossible to get through this shit if you can't find some way to laugh.

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