Hermitess is the solo project of songwriter, visual artist and harpist Jennifer Crighton. Dreaming simultaneously in music and images, her projects are often approached with the sensibility of curator, intent on a carefully imagined collection of collaborators, stories and set pieces.
Tower, Hermitess’ new three-song EP, was written as a natural follow up to the Hermitess self titled release. If the Hermitess debut record was about wanting to run into the forest and disappear, Tower’s narrative is about coming to terms with the reality of modern life.
Lead single, “Followers,” plays with questions of the artificiality inherent in having an online presence, the deal we make with our own devils to do so, and what we wager for better or worse in those transactions. The accompanying “Followers” music video tackles the distorting influence of social media on time and on relationships.
Watch the video for the lead single “Followers” now and check out our exclusive interview with Hermitess below!
Can you talk to us about the inspiration behind your single, “Followers”?
“Followers” is a now familiar unit of measurement for our social capital online, but it also has deeper meanings if you dig into it, vaguely fanatical religious roots, and a sense of some loss of liberty, as we now all find ourselves among the “followers”. This is something I play with a lot as a writer, words that have changed or gathered meanings over time, words that mean different things in different contexts. I feel the obligation of social media a lot as an art maker, this job we have to constantly maintain the audience for our platforms, how the process feels to participate in, how it eats up the time that would otherwise have been spent making the art itself, and how all of this is now an inevitably part of a society lived more and more in online spaces. I’m probably always going to feel uneasy about this, as someone who remembers a time before it came into existence, I’m acutely aware of the cognitive dissonance it causes for me personally. I understand it’s necessity, I find it interesting, it is now part of our society, but I’m not sure if any of us genuinely have autonomy on these platforms, we are all following the followers……
How do you think your community has contributed to your success?
I believe strongly that the majority of music cannot happen without community. Community is both practically how the work gets made, and who the music is for. I am missing seeing my community, and all of these feelings were heightened releasing this EP as a global pandemic developed, and in the midst of the lockdown. Live shows are such an essential companion to recordings; grounded to a physical location and community, grounding the songwriter to the living version of those tunes. Already putting out a digital only music, it gets very quickly disconnected from the players and their place. That more widespread reach of music online can be a great thing… but there is also the feeling of the release being whisked away before it gets to really belong to any place on the ground. I am hoping to play a live stream at some point soon, I am hoping to play safely with my band soon too, but I am definitely mourning the loss of the live festivals and shows that I had originally lined up to coincide with this release.
As for the recording itself, you can definitely hear and see my community on this EP. I recorded it as part of a residency at the National Music Centre, a museum with a living collection of unique instruments and studios that is located here in Calgary. I met and formed a new relationship with the wonderful producer Elisa Pangsaeng, whose sensitivity as an engineer, beat maker, mixer and arranger are a big reason this release sounds the way it does. Richard Gallant played the Hurdy-Gurdy on my LP, and we finally got to record him playing the Dulcimer on this release, which he has been playing with Hermitess live already for years. Some old and some new members of my “witch choir” got to be featured on this recording as well, Aimee-Jo Benoit, Melyssa Neilsen, Laura Reid and Amanda Bassie. I added male voices to the choir this time around including Danny Vescarelli, Keith Roger and Steve Fletcher. Stellar dummer Melissa McWilliams who also plays with my other project Devonian Gardens shared her talents for this project, and Keith Rodger, who plays with Mel in another band called the Surf Kitties, is a brand new collaborator on the bass. Friend and a fellow songwriter Kenna Burima (who is usually too busy to be in my gigging band!) came in to work her magic on the harpsichord, that was absolute magic. Laura Reid who has been playing the solo violin with me at shows for some time is also the artistic director of the Kensington Sinfonia, she connected me to the string players on Followers, as well as to Donovan Seidle, the composer who arranged the strings for that tune. Evan Pearce and I both live in Alberta and have crossed paths many times, but we started working on the brain bending video for Followers in the middle of the lockdown, and so spent some very intense weeks both hunched over computers in different cities sending versions of my melting face and his epic digital tapestry back and forth all while the internet continuously punked us! Geneva Hayley, a painter and tattoo artist created the beautiful Tower image that graces the Tarot download cards for this EP.
Those are just the people directly related to this specific release… There are so many other folks, from those at campus radio, venues and festivals, band members that were not able to be there for the recording, friends who dropped off cookies, and those who gave me their encouragement and advice along the way!
What was the first thing that got you interested in music?
It was singing that motivated me to play instruments, and I was pretty into singing from a very early age. Probably the next biggest influence was my parents collection of vinyl, there were a lot of the classics, Joni mitchell, Neil Young, the Beatles etc, but my dad also had a lot of unusual things, Floral Purim, The Weather Report, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, and the new-age recordings of Zamphir and the electric harpist Adreas Vollenweider. The variety of that record collection is probably what made me want to write music myself. My parents were both artists who met each other working in the theatre, so they embraced my creative interests, and probably also my unconventional approach to them, I was very lucky that way. When I decided I would like to play the harp they figured that out, which wasn’t all that easy living in a small town on Vancouver island in a time before the internet.
The harp became the companion to my songwriting, but I struggled with early teachers who were very conservatory focused and gave me exercises from theory books, only for me to come to my next lesson with a composition of my own based on the exercises. Eventually my parents found me a teacher who was a songwriter herself, and that was great, but in retrospect I probably could have benefitted from applying myself to the theory a bit more. I studied jazz in post secondary and I loved it, but was somewhat theory adverse in that setting too. I have since discovered that I am a bit dislexic which is probably why I have always struggled with the written version of music, but I was good enough at faking it because I had sharp ears. What I learned studying jazz was how to listen to the whole form of the music, how all the parts and all the players fit together, because of that I learned how to improvise , sensitively responding to other musicians in the moment, those skills are invaluable as a performer, composer and songwriter.
Describe to our audience your music-making process.
I’m also a visual artist, I’ll usually get a sense of the music and the images coming to me simultaneously. I approach music the way I would a piece of installation art or a curatorial project. I have a sense of the story I want to tell and then as I am writing I am also thinking about how to tell that story, with the images, with the musicians and artists I hope to collaborate with, and with my choice of producer and how and where I plan to record. The guiding concept for this release was the Tower tarot card which for me represented modern society and is represented on the album art by an unfinished skyscraper. The choice of Tower now feels even more relevant, that card usually depicts a fall from an elaborate structure representing the faulty foundations of a governing system or set of beliefs.
Working at the National Music Centre was also a unique opportunity. I applied to the residency and from the beginning my idea was to work there with producer Elisa Pangsaeng, who’s style of producing aligned with the more programmed and constructed pop metropolis feel that I was imagining.
As a harpist, I already have an affinity for interesting instrumentation, so that was bound to be a part of this project no matter where I was working, but recording in a music museum made some unique things possible. The 1975 Trident console we were working on has been used to track historic records by Bowie, Elton John, Queen, Rush and Metallica. I played my electric harp through an amp that had once belonged to Neil Young. Kenna got to perform on a beautiful mint green hand painted William Dowd 1769 French double copy ‘Taskin’ Harpsichord. Keith borrowed a 60s era Hofner bass from a collection of guitars recently donated to the museum by Randy Bachman. We also had access to a beautiful and expansive live room to set up an elaborate drum rig, and to record the choir and the string quartet.
I had originally planned for each of these EP projects to happen as part of a specific collaboration with a location, this one in Calgary and the following ones each with a different femme producer in a different city, working with local musicians living in those places. I’m in the process of reimagining how I can continue in the spirit of my original idea, but with less travel and probably less people being together all at the same time. This breaks my heart a bit, because I’m a very hands on person, but I am warming up to the idea of tracks traveling around the world digitally and being added to by various collaborators. I feel like it is something fundamental for artists to keep finding a way in every conceivable situation, I believe strongly that creative thinking originated as a survival response.
What advice would you give other musicians?
Pick the people you work with really carefully, give them respect, and expect respect from them. There is no such thing as a lone genius, you will be who you are and where you are as a result of those who support you, don’t ever take that for granted. Always share the credit with the people who help and support your work. It’s a big fallacy to think the work only exists because of your individual talent, choosing a career as a musician is yours to carry and your responsibility, but an ego usually gets in the way of creative breakthroughs in my experience.
Don’t be afraid to start projects before you feel completely ready, having the right timing and everything lined up is great but it rarely actually happens, you’ll learn the most valuable things by just jumping in and doing them. There will be many missed opportunities and mistakes, it comes with the territory, all of that will be worth it if it helps you learn what works for you. When you meet people you respect who are where you would like to be, observe them and ask them questions about their creative process if you are given the opportunity.
Embrace your local community, success as a musician can mean a lot of different things and most of that does not line up with being “famous”, being part of and helping to create a vibrant local scene is one of the most rewarding things about being a musician, it is tangibly worth much more than fame, people are at different places in their education, in understanding of the business and the balance of work/life but music itself is a universal language. Other musicians and diverse communities are an essential source for musical growth and inspiration.
How did it feel when you released this new music?
I wasn’t entirely sure if I should proceed with the release when the scope of situation with Covid 19 became apparent, but also, because of its subject matter it felt timely in a way, and I was pretty sure that no matter how the situation with the pandemic developed there was no way to know when a good time would be, so this was just not going to be a typical release. There was excitement because I am proud of what we made, but also a lot of weird anxiety and some sadness too. It ended up coming out in the middle of what would have been Sled Island Festival here in Calgary, that would have been such a fun week, an ideal time to share and play these tunes live. I would have traveled to Saskatoon to play another festival the week before, and I would have had a couple of other really cool shows booked during these summer months.
Leading up to the actual release date Evan and I encountered some technical difficulties with the beautiful video he made for Followers which simply refused to upload properly to YouTube. Since I wrote that tune as a cautionary tale of living life online… it was hard not to feel a bit like the internet was punking us back a bit for criticizing it. I was also halfway through working on a film contract when the pandemic hit, so i had an unexpected three months off, and then ended up going back to work last week, months after i was supposed to have wrapped that project and already be out focusing on festing and touring, so things have not gone as planned, but of course I am not alone in this! I think all of us who are musicians are in mourning a bit, for the plight of beloved venues, for our tour dates, for drinking together sloppily and lounging around breathing each other’s air in grotty practice spaces. Some of us have taken to streaming gigs, others, myself included, not so much yet…some of us have had unprecedented spurts of creativity, home recording and writing, others are out working terrifying jobs on the front lines, we’re all feeling a bit untethered as we try and imagine what being a musician will be like in six months, in ten months… in twelve months….
And finally, if you could collaborate with any musician/band, who would it be? And why?
This is an extremely hard question because I love collaborating and there are so many people I want to collaborate with, both known and unknown.
If I had to choose one pie in the sky musical collaborator I think it would have to be Björk. I first became aware of her when I saw her Human Behavior video on MTV, a collaboration with the Canadian Director Michel Gondry. She has continued to innovate, especially by embracing emerging technology fearlessly, and in a way that is always surprising, and still feels very organic and open.
I see her as someone who is also great at choosing her collaborators, she often chooses unexpected people who are not at all mainstream. She is great at elevating the work of those collaborators as part of her overall vision in a way that does not diminish their own independent artistic identities.