Interview: Emilie Autumn – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

Posted: November 20, 2009 in interview, music
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Emilie Autumn

Date of Interview: 11/20/2009

© 2009 Clayton Perry

Emilie Autumn is a classically trained musician, who rose to fame as Courtney Love’s “anarchy violinist.”  In the years that followed, she contributed backing vocals and instrumental support to Billy Corgan (The Future Embrace), Dethklok (The Dethalbum) and Attrition (All Mine Enemys Whisper EP).  Her musical work can be found on the international soundtracks for Saw III and IV as well.

To date, Emilie Autumn has six solo albums to her credit: On a Day… (2000), Enchant (2003), Your Sugar Sits Untouched (2005), Opheliac (2006), Laced/Unlaced (2007), and A Bit O’ This & That (2007).  In October 2009, her third album was repackaged by The End Records as Opheliac: The Deluxe Edition, which coincided with the launch of Emilie Autumn’s first American tour.

Upon review of Opheliac: The Deluxe Edition, Emilie Autumn managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Nigel Kennedy, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and life as an independent artist.

Clayton Perry: A few weeks ago, a close friend of mine invited me to your show at the Highline Ballroom in New York City.  Although you’re an independent artist, I was blown away by your stage production and set design!  What previous professional or educational experiences have allowed you to put together such a dazzling show?

Emilie Autumn: I think that just growing up in the back stages of theatres and stuff, and always being in show business of some sort since I was really, really small – just being able to be around that. And then just knowing what I love – I love theatre. I love a good show. I don’t want a rock show. I want a f**kin’ Broadway musical. When I go and want to put on a record, then it’s about the music. But when I pay money to go out and see somebody on stage, I think you really have to earn the right to be on the stage. I think what technically enables me to put on that show and to build all the costumes and sets myself is just simply f**king determination to make it happen. It’s like if I know that I need a gigantic clock, I will figure out how to make it [laughing]. I’ve just been learning stagecraft over the last few years and working with different chemicals – being able to carve things in my Asylum Houses full of power tools and all sorts of things. And I’ve completely ruined my floor, but it’s the cost of being in business. So, yeah, the sheer determination and love of the craft and all of that. And it’s just so much fun when it all pulls together.

Clayton Perry: Over the years, I have seen some spectacular productions.  Are you inspired by the tours of other female artists, like Madonna and Janet Jackson?

Emilie Autumn: They have great productions, but chances are they didn’t build it themselves! [laughing] I think that’s the thing. I’m not Madonna. I’m not going to be able to get people to do that for me. And I think the great side of that is that having to start everything myself — like, if you want to see it, you better f**king figure out how to make it with your own hands. When it gets to the point where it just gets too big for me to possibly manufacture – which is pretty much now – then I’ve already established the vision for it. And that’s where I’m so very much a control freak in everything. I think the good part about it is that the vision will always stay absolutely pure and I won’t let anybody else touch anything until I’ve already established what it is. It’s like the brand is visual from a mile away. I don’t need an outside person to come along and say, “This is your vision for the show. This is what it should be. How about this idea? Let me draw you some sketches.” It’s already done. Now it’s just about doing it in the way that’s going to last on tour – which is what we’re dealing with now. Yeah, let’s make all this awesomeness for the first show. It looks beautiful. Then, after it’s been in the trailer for thirty days, things start to fall apart. And at some point, everything needs to be made out of f**king galvanized metal. So we’re working on that right now. Details! [laughing]

Clayton Perry: When I reviewed your tour schedule, I was surprised to see that you have 70+ tour dates within a six-month time span.  Since your career is pretty “do it yourself,” how do you keep energy levels and spirits high and stay motivated?

Emilie Autumn: I’m sure that you can imagine nothing is as glamorous as it seems like it is from the outside. I mean, we’re lucky if we get to bathe occasionally. So I would recommend next time you see me, definitely mouth breathe because you don’t know how long it’s been since I washed my corset. It’s an amazing thing. The Bloody Crumpets and I do experiments on like, “How bad can we possibly smell?” We’re all classy ladies, you know, but not totally [laughing]. What I always wanted to do was to perform night after night and be roaming the world, telling the story that I want to tell. I do have to remind myself to keep going. It is just the incredible luxury that I now have any sort of a position to do that, because I could be working at McDonald’s. And I’m not. And that’s big f**king deal for a musician, because it’s the top one percent that will ever be able to say that. So, I realize right now how lucky I am – even when things are incredibly, excruciatingly difficult. But at the same time it’s really about the show, and about the girls that are in the show with me. And about the music – all I’ve ever wanted was to play music. And now I get to do that and tour the world with my four best girlfriends on the face of the planet, it’s insane. Like, who gets that? We feed off of each other on the bus, in real life, on the stage, and we are that way all the time. The show is not as much of an act as it seems. That’s really us. It’s just the spotlight is on a particular facet of our personalities, but it’s us.

Clayton Perry: Four additional ladies, the Bloody Crumpets, tour along with you night after night.  I noticed that you have tremendous chemistry on-stage.  How did you first met these ladies?

Emilie Autumn: Yeah, it’s such a mystery, and it’s a great question, but I can’t fully answer it. It’s a mystery to even me. The Asylum is a very real, very serious place. And what happens is, I feel like if you’re meant to be an inmate, you already are one. And the girls are my fellow inmates in this asylum. There’s never an audition process. It’s like you’re either born one of these people or you’re not, and it’s just a matter of finding each other. I don’t put a notice out for band members. We find each other through the inmates we already know or some magical occurrence happens. And what I always say about it is I put this symbol into the sky that’s like the Batman symbol, and the girls that are supposed to be meeting up with me in this journey will see all over the world and accept. Instead of the bat symbol in the sky, it’s the Plague Rat logo silhouette. So then the crazy girls all over the world that are crazy enough to want to be a part of this see that and we will find each other. And that is magic. That is honestly the truth. There’s no real answer to how we meet up. You just find each other in the same space and go, “I think we’re supposed to be sister inmates in this thing. Come tell a story.” That’s pretty much it.

Clayton Perry: How similar or different is the line-up from your previous tours in 2007 and 2008? Did you always have the Bloody Crumpets with you?

Emilie Autumn: We’ve had a few different girls because we have Asylum home bases all over the world. So we’ve had some girls in Germany that have been inmates that have been a part of that. But this core group is the one that has been with me the most and the longest. And we’ve just become so incredibly close on stage – as you can probably tell – so much of the show is improv every night. We don’t discuss that. We just go, and you have the trust. But the previous shows – since like 2007, 2008, whatever – have all been European-based, mainly and mostly. It was basically this same idea but just not as evolved in the stage set-up, the presentation of that. It’s just always a matter of getting things just the way you want them. Even now they’re not nearly the way I want them. But we’re evolving to play theatres and venues where there are actually wings on the sides, curtains and flies in the ceilings that you can put things up in. That’s what the show is built for, and so for it to grow to really the next level, that’s what we’re going to begin working with. It’s just about getting that core group of girls and making as many cupcakes as possible to go on stage.

Clayton Perry: To be frank, I was a bit embarrassed that I had never heard of you before, considering the fact that the venue was packed to capacity and many of the audience members wore special costumes for the occasion?  With such an underground following, has there been a lot of pressure on you to go the commercial route?

Emilie Autumn: Actually, no. I had that pressure when I was sixteen and just becoming me. And, of course, then you’re an easy target for anybody who wants to exploit that. But now it’s really not, because everybody that I work with knows that it would be absolutely pointless to even talk to me about doing something that was different. It’s a funny thing, success. And the amount of people that are exposed to your music – that is a good thing. Nobody here is trying — we want world f**king domination. We’re going to get it. We’re not trying to keep it small. But we’re trying to keep it pure in the way that I wrote it. I mean, this is all based off this world, and my job is to accurately present it in a really f**king entertaining, special way. And my manager, my label – everybody knows that they don’t even talk about that stuff. They just let me do what it is, and their job is to facilitate and make it on as large a scale as possible, and help it to grow really fast. It’s all about, literally, spreading that Plague. The Plague is the word of this thing, this story, and spreading that to the Plague Rats – which is what the fans are called around the world – and gathering them. We’re like the Pied Piper and the Rats are following. And that’s what’s happening. There’s no real pressure at all, because they know. And also, you stop getting that kind of pressure once you start to prove that what you say or what your plan was actually does work. And because I’ve gotten to this point pretty much by myself I can get help because we’re important enough to get more support than we’ve had in the past. Now people understand we’ll continue doing what works. And it’s really just about any artist does need to prove themselves and to prove that they know what they’re talking about – or else people are going to try to take over. My advice to any artist, including myself, is every day I remind myself, “Never forget who the boss is.” And that’s you. And I think artists, we forget that we’re the boss of everybody. It’s so easy to think that your label is, or your manager is, or anything. Once you accept you’re the boss, you never even have to flex that power. It just is, and that’s necessary. I think when I’ve been messed with in the past – which I have hugely, and every artist has – is because I forgot that. I guess that goes along with the thing of the pressure from the outside: there is no pressure unless you let there be pressure. And I just shut it down immediately, and won’t even listen.

Clayton Perry: During the show, I was immediately drawn to “Misery Loves Company.” What life events served as inspiration for that particular song?

Emilie Autumn: It was about the idea that you take these various clichés that — like a lot of clichés — are based because they’re true, but then they’re just repeated endlessly. And so it began with — because I’m this big literary nerd and history nut and all that stuff — the phrase, “misery loves company.” That means misery loves more misery, and then company loves more, company wants other company. That’s what makes “company.” And then “more”” loves everybody else because it’s the more the merrier thing. But then “hell” is others. And that’s based off the famous French author [Jean-Paul] Sartre who had this play, [No Exit], where these people are all going into this room together, and they don’t know why, and they keep meeting each other, and they’re just annoying the f**k out of each other and they can’t get out. And they’re like, “What is this? What is this?” And they find out at the end that they’re all dead and they’re in hell. And what is hell? Hell is other people. And so that’s the idea. You start out with “misery loves company.” Then hell is other people. So it’s all these contradictions. And the reason why they were even necessary to say was because I was in this personal experience where somebody that really changed my life – in a very negative way — but sure taught me a lot about f**king fighting for myself. We pretty much started the whole relationship off by saying, “Well, you’re miserable, and I’m miserable. We might as well go be miserable together, because misery loves company.” And then you think later, “Wow! That’s not the best basis for a relationship, is it? Let’s go be miserable together?” So then I was just thinking about the absurdity of that statement, the “misery loves company,” and going around to one of my favorite writers saying, “but hell is others.” So really, is it? And that’s pretty much it, being clever on all those different clichés based on the fact that maybe misery really doesn’t love company that much, or maybe that’s just not a good thing, and exposing that kind of bulls**t statement for what it is. So kind of a farce on all of that.

Clayton Perry: You also performed a really fascinating cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Since you write, produced and sing all over your own material, I’m curious to know how this song became a part of your set list. What special attachment do you have to this particular song?

Emilie Autumn: Well, I’m not influenced by many, many artists, but the ones that I am are David Bowie and Queen. I need to see their genius. And also, just performance-wise, they really have the whole package, and that’s what I admire. And the lack of fear to just say, “F**k it. I’m out there. I’m going to wear as many crystals as I want. And I’m going to be sparkly. And I’m going to sing awesomely fabulous. And I’m going to be a god to people.’” And that’s what they had and have in both cases. So with that, it was literally just a silly thing that I thought — it’s one of those things where you do it because you can — that summer like, lasts, whatever. I had that thought of, “I think I just want to f**k around. I just want to put out a single, not connected to an album. I want to do it for no reason other than that I can.  So I recorded two songs: this one and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” And obviously “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s just this massive, massive, master work of awesomeness. And it was just about, “Okay, take two songs that are absolutely some of the most famous songs in the world.” And also two of the most non-Gothic songs in the world – at least that’s not what they’re listened to as. My whole thing is the anti-Goth, and that we’re really Gothic in the sense that there’s just some dark s**t going on but we don’t have to wear black to prove it. And so, it’s Goth in its real sense of Gothic architecture and Gothic art, Gothic thought, Gothic literature — not the Gothic fashion, necessarily, which, I think, is charming but it’s not what we are. It was about saying, “I want to do this thing.” It’s a little bit of a joke because I know it’s not what people expect. I know we have a huge Gothic following and I think they’re going to start lightening up a bit and taking themselves and taking us a little less seriously – which is a very healthy, good thing. It was something that I just wanted to do to prove to myself like, “Can I f**king pull this off?” Because God knows, like, nobody else is doing that. Why? Because it’s really fricking hard. But I can do that, and we can do that. And so, it was that challenge of knowing I want to challenge myself and do something, but I know that if I f**k up one note, I’m going to get my ass kicked because that is sacrilegious. Like, you don’t f**k with “Bohemian-f**king-Rhapsody.” So it was just that challenge of, “Can you pull it off knowing that the stakes are pretty high? You’re going to be completely locked out of town if you f**k it up.” So that’s why. And I was just so out of mind to do it. And then to be like, “You know what? I can’t only do this on a recording. I can do it live, every fricking night, and I will get that high B-flat every time. And it’s not easy, but I will do it.” I was just f**king committed. So I finally got that, and now I usually never miss [laughing].

Clayton Perry: As a classical trained violinist, how did you end up escaping the “classical” box? I heard that you were trained by Nigel Kennedy.

Emilie Autumn: Nigel Kennedy is my favorite violinist, but I wasn’t actually trained by him. As far as I know, he doesn’t teach.  But he liked one of my records, and I have gone all over the place—studying from different master teachers. And that was my whole life up until I was sixteen or so when I finally allowed myself to do the other things that I was doing, but not telling anybody about the music I was writing, and singing, and all of that stuff. But, yeah, my whole world was just about — and I wanted it this way – but it was just about being a classical, world-class violin soloist. That’s what I wanted. And then just growing up I realized that I do want that, but I want more. And in the classical industry, literally, you’re not supposed to want more. It’s very much frowned on to want more. You’re really not allowed to want more. That is not allowed. And so I just realized that this is not the place for me. “I want to play the music, but I don’t want to play it with you people.” And so that’s how that got changed into . . . I still make that music and I still make classical records and I always, always will, but I won’t put myself in that category because I think it’s a death sentence. It’s the lowest-selling genre – even lower than jazz, which is pretty low, unfortunately.

Clayton Perry: Yes, it’s quite sad.

Emilie Autumn: And so, why would I even care to be a part of that? I want my own genre. And I want it to just be me. And if you like me, then you will like the stuff that I sing and you will like the stuff that I play. And if you don’t like any of it, that’s great, too, but I don’t need to represent the classical industry because they don’t represent me. Everything I ever did was frowned upon – as far as they loved my playing, but they didn’t like the way I look. And life is way too short and stupid to f**k around with that stuff. It shouldn’t be about that. For me, it actually is about the music, which means that it shouldn’t matter at all what I look like, or talk like, or anything. So I’m very happy that I found a way to keep all the things that I love and just smash them into this one art form that lets me do a bit of it every night so I never feel like I’m losing what I learned.

Clayton Perry: I came across a quote where you classified your music as “Victorian Industrial.” That’s a really interesting spin on “classical” music.

Emilie Autumn: Victorian Industrial – that’s just me being cute and clever and stupid and putting two words together. That’s the fun of it. I used to have a hard time explaining my style, and people had a hard time explaining it to others, especially when asked about what kind of music and/or show I produced. And so, by taking things that basically did describe it and putting them together and creating a new genre, it sort of solved the whole problem. Now if somebody in an airport says, “What kind of band are you?” and “What do you do?” I’ll just say, “Oh, it’s Victorian Industrial.” And then, at least to somebody that’s really intelligent, it pretty much says what it is. I mean it sounds like that word. But to somebody who doesn’t get it, then it’s just like, “Oh, okay.” And I have to stop explaining then. So that’s good, too. Like I know in the record stores it’s gotta be under some category or other. But to me, if it’s any category, it’s more Glam Rock than anything else. But it’s still very hard to categorize. I don’t even know what it is. It’s just a mix of all of these things and it gets filed under whatever it gets filed under. It’s a difficult thing for a lot of artists, I think, to be able to exactly say what the hell it is they do.

Clayton Perry: Sonically, your first album, Enchant, is very different from the music presented on Opheliac.  What inspired the transition?

Emilie Autumn: Oh, getting locked up and being put in the asylum. At the time, I was on a path, and it was a much more enchanted path and that’s what led to that record. It was dark, but there was always light at the end of the tunnel. And then my life changed entirely. And I was put away in the psych ward and everything bad in the world happened. And once that happened, overnight, I was a different person. You look different, you sound different, you talk different, you think different, you write different – and that’s what happened. And so from that day, it’s like, “All right, this is a different game, and I have a different voice, and I no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m going to tell my story anyway because that’s the only revenge I can get for everything that’s ever happened to me: to take all of the s**t that was supposed to kill me, and make it pay for the f**king gas on my very expensive tour bus. That is the best thing I can do.” So, you know what I’m saying: “I will own this, and if you think I’m crazy, I’ll show you crazy.” That’s what I’m saying. Then, “Let’s make a whole show out of it. Let’s base my entire life and career off of this thing that anybody else would try to hide and pretend never happened,” because you’d have a hard time getting a job after that, and stuff. And so, you’re like, “No, I’m not only going to not hide it. I will own it. I will so completely own it.” And it makes it something that I can live with. It creates the ultimate joke, which is that now everybody wants to be an inmate in the asylum not knowing that this is the last place on earth you should ever want to be – but that’s the joke. And unless I can make a joke out of this, I can’t live, and I can’t live with it. So, that’s what enables me, on a serious note, to survive everything and keep going. I think in the end it ended up helping a lot of other people, too, who may be bipolar, who maybe attempted suicide, who may be a lot of things. Who maybe just are highly misunderstood people that get locked up sometimes. You don’t know. But it created a haven for them, which is perfect in the way that it comes full circle. The idea now is taking back the asylum and basically making it into what that word really means – which asylum means sanctuary. That means a place where people can go to be safe. That’s not what it is. That’s not what it was 150 years ago – which is what we’re referencing and we’re comparing this to the Victorian insane asylums for girls. Not a lot has changed between then and now. And that’s the problem, and that’s what we’re bringing to light in our way: nobody wants to be preached to. So if you want to actually have a real message on top of all the rest of this silliness, the way to do it is through comedy and sarcasm and ridicule and farce and sexuality. And all of those things that I think are great. That’s how you will actually change the world, I think.

Clayton Perry: In addition to being a singer, songwriter and producer, you are also an author and illustrator.  What details can you share about your forthcoming book, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls?

Emilie Autumn: It’s a big, beautiful, hardcover. I’m looking at it right now. I’ve got the advanced first copy. It’s this amazing sort of coffee table book, and fully illustrated and paintings and photos and all of that. But what it really is is this massive, epic novel. And it is autobiographical, but it also goes over into this alternate reality of The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls – which is what it’s called. And that becomes this whole time travel thing. But what you’ll learn is, you’ll learn everything about me that you never wanted to know – all the hardcore stuff that my best friends don’t know because it’s just too uncomfortable and they probably won’t want to read this book. And that’s okay. But it’s all of that, and then it is – most importantly – all about The Asylum and the world of this asylum. And that is something that I’m just one minuscule part of. I’m just an ingredient in. The world is much bigger than just me. It’s massive. And you’ll learn about the building: where it is, what it is, how big it is – just the sheer, terrifying mass of it – how many cells, how many thousands of girls can fit in here, and what’s done to us. There’s beauty in just the whole horror of it. It ends up being a sort of roller-coaster ride of horror elements, and culminating in what I arrogantly like to think is one of the best cliffhangers of all time. And maybe it’s not and it just is to me, but it’s such a good cliffhanger that I don’t even know what happens next. And that’s something that the audience and I will find out together. I don’t know how it ends. And that’s the fun of it. So it’s got all of that in it. It’s my life. It’s intensely serious, and yet it’s also got a lot of humor in it. At the end – it wouldn’t even matter if somebody didn’t know it was true. It’s just a good story and a novel. It doesn’t matter who it’s about. It can be enjoyed on many different levels. You don’t have to be a fan of me by any means to want it. And it’s also, I think, the most complete account of bipolar disorder I’ve ever read personally. So maybe that’ll be useful because that’s a highly misunderstood disease. And that’s what I’ve got, so that’s something that I thought needed to be told the truth about. It talks about a lot of things like what goes on inside modern day psych wards that nobody has a godd**ned clue about, otherwise they would shut this s**t down. But it does, and so, it serves multiple purposes. It’s that social criticism of Victorian to now – not much has changed and that’s not okay.

Clayton Perry: Taking that into consideration, what parting words do you wish to leave with your fans, both new and old alike?

Emilie Autumn: I think that my only request for the people out there is that they need to join the Asylum Army. They need to avenge suffering girls everywhere, and they need to start helping to spread the Plague.

For more information on Emilie Autumn, visit her official website: http://www.emilieautumn.com/

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