Music Musings :
Emilie Autumn’s Personal Asylum: Part One
November 30, 2009 , 1:44 am | By Bryan Reesman
One of the most original musical artists to emerge in the ’00s, vocalist/violinist/ performance artist Emilie Autumn is a force to be reckoned with. Over the last three years she’s become a hit in the Goth scene of Germany with her catchy and confrontational music, and now she is building up a cult following in America. Her highly acclaimed third album Opheliac came out in 2006 and was just reissued in the States, and she has also released EPs with new songs, live tracks and remixes; a double album of classic violin pieces (Laced/Unlaced); and a book (the forthcoming The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls) about her personal experiences grappling with bipolar disorder.
It’s taken her a decade to arrive here. Not that she hasn’t been busy. Following her 2000 classical release On A Day… and 2002 solo album Enchant, Autumn’s mainstream buzz grew while she recorded on and toured behind Courtney Love’s America’s Sweetheart album in 2004. She’s also recorded with Otep, Billy Corgan and for the Metalocalypse soundtrack. Now she’s really making her mark.
It’s hard not to think of her as Goth given her Victorian image, bright red hair, neoclassical style and dark and risque stageshow, which includes four provocatively dressed women called The Bloody Crumpets representing different aspects of herself and every woman, from the saintly to the sinful. Listening to such Opheliac tracks as the manic “God Help Me” and “Liar,” beautifully disturbing “Gothic Lolita” and entrancing, beat-driven “Swallow” — with themes spanning self-mutilation, sexual abuse and suicide — it’s hard not to make the connection. Even her violin solo during her NYC gig in October was heavily distorted, amplified and perfectly appropriate for her moody and funny show (and completely inappropriate for the classical world from which she came).
But Emilie Autumn does not seek to be pigeonholed, nor should you box her in. Not that she minds being embraced by the Goth scene. She says she finds the scene adorable and appreciates the love she gets from it, even if she says “I am not Goth in the slightest”. She is certainly an intense interview. Autumn was such a whirlwind of ideas within the 25 minutes that we chatted that I found myself not worrying about asking for Courtney Love stories or delving further into the music because without her viewpoint and her personal life experience, she would not be the artist she is nor have the burgeoning career that she does. There is a dark sense of humor running through her work, as she grapples with tough issues. The same applies to her interviews. So rather than try to dissect her with a more in-depth intro, it’s better to let her do the talking.
Don’t you find it intriguing that the Goth image gets huge but the music never does? Except in Germany, of course.
That’s the thing, and that’s why that was the first place where I went. I had a German label at the time, and they brought us over immediately because the word was, “This is the divine timing, you’re going to be big here now. It’s just the right thing.” I just took an adventure and decided to do it, knowing that I could go home at any time. It was great. It did happen, it did work and it was very interesting to see how what here is completely cultish is close to mainstream over there, as far as the Gothic industrial scene. It’s pretty interesting. What I really had to do at the beginning two or three years ago is just go over and prove that I was actually a real person and looked somewhat like the posters. Nobody really believes that until they see you in the flesh. I wasn’t quite as mean. I was trying. I was trying to be mean. I was trying to stick up for myself, and now I can. Then I was just trying, but that’s what the record did. That’s what the record was about.
So what changed in you during the last three years?
Finding my place in the asylum to find that I could still be brutalized, but I know it more when it happens. I realize it slightly quicker than I used to. I just simply own it more now, and I learned how to tell the truth because [I was] abusively raised as a people pleaser and all the rest of that, being very shy and never being in the real world, always working for the last 20 years in the industry with people 10, 20 or 30 years older. Growing up as a classical violinist I was in a totally different world, so I never went to high school and never was 16 and smoked pot for the first time. This is the first group that is mine and that I am a part of, and that’s why it’s so important.
Where does Emilie Autumn the artist end and the person begin?
It doesn’t. It’s exactly the same. That’s the point. This is as real as it gets. There’s nothing that isn’t the truth. The book is entirely true. The music is entirely true. The show is entirely true. I couldn’t do this to this degree of [being] into the character and into the hardcore-ness of it if it weren’t. It would be too exhausting. I’m more real on stage than I am anywhere else in life or in singing, because here’s where you actually tell the truth. To quote Oscar Wilde, give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth. You put on a lot of make-up and you’re actually going to see the real person for once because God knows in daily life we rarely get to do that. There are too many compromises that we don’t even realize that we’re all asked to make everyday, in the way that you walk down the street and dress, in what you look like and how much harassed you want to be for what you want to wear. Anything. It’s not just girls. Everybody has to compromise who they are in some small way. But on stage I don’t because I’m protected. I can take off all my clothes and roll around in blood if I want to, and usually do, and there’s some semblance of security. Unless we hurt somebody, we can do anything without real consequence or any compromise because people don’t want to see compromise, they want to see theater. And for me theater is real, hence the commitment to it. This is where we get to actually be what we are.
Your book and album deal with grappling with bipolar disorder, and yet you dress in Victorian clothing, which is an interesting statement considering back then we did not have the knowledge of bipolar that we do today…
The thing is we don’t have an understanding today. That’s the point. The point of the record of and the point of the story arc of the book is beyond my own personal tale. It starts with me being locked up in the psych ward in Los Angeles, and then through that horrible, horrible experience needing, in order to survive it, to get in touch with this alternate reality that I believe existed before me. It’s just something that I tapped into that then became the Victorian asylum. So it’s the story of comparing and contrasting what happens between [me and] my alter ego, and through the diary entries of both of us in these two worlds learning — and at some point they cross over and you can’t tell who’s writing anymore — this is the truth. This is just what happens. You learn about what happens there — it’s all very accurate — and you learn that there’s not much difference between then and now. And that’s the point. It wasn’t planned this way, but in the end you see the social criticism that not a lot has changed, and that’s fucked. For example, who’s the lab rat now? I go to my shrink and he puts me on lithium, and I say, “How exactly does this stuff work?” He says, “We have no idea.” Because he knows enough just to be honest. We have the understanding that I sincerely study everything I can about these things because I’m fascinated with the fact that we can be genetically born to where our brains just fuck us up. We’re built with a ticking timebomb.
In the medical world, bipolar is considered a terminal illness because three out of four people are going to jump out a window or do something, so it is expected that you’re going to kill yourself. That’s why I was locked up to begin with. Then it just goes on from there. It’s about how you’ll never be taken seriously again once you’ve been prescribed a prescription drug. It’s about how once you’ve actually been locked up it’s all over for you. This is not about self-pity. This is about taking back the power of not just me but anybody who’s had these issues or anybody who even understands these issues or anybody who’s even curious about it. My ultimate revenge is making this into something that can pay for my fucking tour bus and making this my job and making it fabulous to [the point] where now everybody wants to be an asylum inmate. That’s the ultimate irony. In real life, this is the last place you want to go, and everybody now wants to be a part of it. That’s my revenge.