the mad heiress interview:
elizabeth jacobs of sophia perennis
mh: why do you make music?
ej: the "music" i make is not the music i wanted to make as a teenager. learning the rules of guitar and music theory is something i really, really want to learn, but i have no patience for playing in keys or memorizing the circle of fifths, etc. i'm told, "don't play this note and this note together, it sounds bad," and i just think, "why? why bad?" and i just want to play those notes together more! i think that's why jazz is such an appealing concept. i wish i could play guitar like jack rose, and maybe someday i'll acquire that patience to learn the rules so that i know exactly what i'm doing when i break them, but right now i'm still just trying to be musical with guitar loops and found sounds. so i wouldn't call it music. but whatever it is - i make it for the same reason i make anything. i'm compelled to.
mh: a lot of your music has a submerged quality, as if it were drifting slowly upwards from the bottom of a very deep, old well. can you speak to that?
ej: yes! i'm so glad you see it this way. when i make a track, i try to capture what i consider primordial music. music that has always existed. i sometimes hear "music" through noise; through the screeching on the subway or through the brief rhythmic noises the bus engines make. i once heard a beautiful tune made by two wine glasses clinking together in the dishwasher. rhythm bleeds through the wall of cicada song in the summers. it's something that needs to be pulled out of nature and made conscious and concrete. i feel like i'm extracting it for others to hear. for this reason, i want the listener to hear the song before they realize they are hearing music. a lot of the tracks have really extreme and elongated fade-ins, so that you are hearing it unconsciously before you actually realize you are hearing it, like a beautiful subliminal message.
mh: sophia perennis means "eternal wisdom." for you, what wisdom is your music imparting, either the end result and/or the act of creating it? are you “speaking to yourself” while working on it? what do you learn?
ej: i'll give you an example. kingdom of shells was written and produced during my darkest period. i considered calling it dark night of the soul, but it felt cliché and overused, rather than archetypal, which was what i wanted. i use my music to travel into the unknown. it is only through traveling into the unknown that more information is gleaned. i have spent the majority of my life interested in "dark" things. if i had not suffered the things i suffered in my life, i would not be the person i am today. it is not, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." that's a cliché. it is much more than that. there is beauty in the darkness. there are answers to the most twisted things: cannibalism, serial killing, rape, etc. i have tried to find these answers. why don't we live in a utopia? "evil" as the religious demographic call it, must be necessary. what purpose does death, decay, violence, evil, darkness, serve? god made a deal with the devil. santa claus works with krampus (who looks exactly like the devil) to frighten little children into behaving. this is all related to the hero's journey, dante's inferno, the odyssey, etc. venture out into the darkness, and return home changed, better.
it is only through exploring mental illness, pain, and suffering that i have come out on the other side - the lighter side. in myth, sophia made a mistake. her first thought was the archon that created the physical world. this archon is known as the demiurge - the evil god that rules our planet earth. because of this, gnostics believe that this physical world is a world of shadows (hence kingdom of shells, also a concept in the qabalah). this is something i can relate to. i think terms, evil, good, dark and light, fail at describing what these symbols (sophia, the demiurge) represent. i think that is something only artistic creation can do. my sounds are a language representing these ideas. this is why it is dark, frightening, noisy, but at the same time, beautiful, melancholic, sweet, and pleasing.
the physical world does not exist without light and shadow. if there is spirit - it is imprisoned in flesh.
mh: similarly, some of your music is actually sort of frightening. would you accept a descriptor of "horror" for some of it?
ej: absolutely. i have been a fan of the horror genre since i was a toddler. i am particularly interested in psychological horror. the idea of going mad is terrifying. the idea of a madman chasing me is terrifying. in my opinion and experience, madness is caused by the avoidance of pain and suffering. the mind is destroyed along with reality to avoid a painful truth, whatever it may be, (i'm reminded of the movie the snake pit). a lot of my tracks were created as an expression of the pain and suffering i was feeling at the time. i obsessively made sounds for hours on end to avoid going mad.
turns out i went mad anyway.
mh: how pre-determined are the moods, the sounds, the textures? do you surprise yourself?
ej: it is all experimental. when i have a found sound or guitar loop down as the spine of a track, i begin to imagine other sounds with it. i think of the sounds as colors. i tend to know exactly what would work as a complimentary sound, or gradient of another sound. i layer them like i would acrylic paint. my process is the same in every medium i use, because it's how my brain processes information and ideas. the only thing that changes is the medium. sometimes i have an idea in terms of a mood, dream, or lyrics - but those serve as armatures to build off of spontaneously. a lot of tracks that have very few vocals started with an entire composition of lyrics. usually, over time the lyrics get chopped up, deleted, or turned into one word or phrase that just gets repeated over and over again. so yes, i surprise myself the majority of the time, which makes it insanely fun!
mh: pristine. torn. frayed. crystalline. remote. what do these words mean to you?
ej: pristine to me means perfect, but only as perfect as nature allows. there is often a bit of decay and death in everything, represented by a flaw or deviation from a pattern. but this is what creates beauty. anything perfect as an absolute is empty, boring. torn to me means something damaged. but somehow, once it's torn, whatever it is, the fear of someday damaging it goes away. and that's a relief. frayed - i think of a ribbon unraveling like a mind unraveling, when you just sort of want to cut off the frayed part and start over, at least until it begins to fray again. crystalline, i think of the sound of the crystals growing in the movie fantastic planet. what a beautiful sound! remote is the characteristic of a place that is reachable only in dreams, and a place you can only visit, never live in.
mh: you write and paint and draw. how much intersection is there between these mediums and your music?
ej: i think that i try to capture a lot of similar things with each medium. writing is about stories. it's about narrative. it's about characters and events coming full circle. something is resolved. it's a different way of capturing the insanity of existence through story telling. painting is a visual language. it's like, when i see scenery i see it all at once. like a great big concept being injected into your mind, and you sort of just get it. music, for me, is about mood, it's about the deeper parts of the self that can't really be expressed otherwise. so while i can write a story about loneliness, a song about loneliness, and make a painting about loneliness, they all capture the different ways of experiencing the same concept.
mh: describe your favorite gear. describe your work ethic. what are great at? what do you suck at?
ej: i once had an arsenal of sound effects, i won't go into specifics of how i acquired it - but it was amazing. i still lament the loss of the program. i have a love affair with my beyer dynamic headphones. i'm sure there are better models out now, but at the time, they were a big investment for me.
my work ethic is obsessive and though i am satisfied with individual pieces i always feel that i can do better. to quote the cure, "whatever i do, it's never enough."
lately, i'm great at doing most of the work with painting and writing in my head. then when i go to manifest it, it flows much better. the more i think about a project and visualize myself doing it, the easier it is to actually do it. it's sort of like mental math. also like magic! i have yet to employ this technique with music, but i would be curious to see how/if it works the same way.
i try not to judge my work as good or bad, or skilled or primitive. all those things are just labels which require comparisons to predecessors or contemporaries and i find that to be the worst possible thing an artist can do - compare their work with others.
that said, i really suck at giving myself a break. but i don't mind the masochism as long as it keeps me working!
mh: i give you a fur-covered spoon. what do you do with it?
ej: put googley eyes on it and name it "fur-ank."
mh: did art rescue you? if so, when, and how?
ej: truthfully, i think punk rock rescued me from certain death. it's that basic. "art" for me is just a way to breathe. so i would say it keeps me alive. it's something that i have to do. i don't have a choice.
mh: are there narratives at play in your music?
ej: sometimes. dear is about a terrible break-up. but there were some uncanny, almost magical aspects to it. so it wasn't so much about a break-up as it was a break-up that was symbolic of feeling left for dead by god. fable is about a dream i had in which i came across an old couple on a bridge. by that point, i had travelled around the globe, walking, trying to find heaven. when i came across the couple, they knew what i was looking for. they said, "just walk toward the sun to get to heaven." i looked over the bridge and the sun was setting. i realized that all i had to do was walk along the path of light it was making to get there. then i woke up. but i try to express the feeling induced by these narratives, more than represent the narrative itself.
i don't consider myself a religious or spiritual person, but i am interested in exploring religious, mythological and archetypal themes in the creative work that i do.
mh: do you care about being remembered when you're dead?
ej: absolutely. i'd like to leave some kind of legacy behind.