Constellation Interview with Katelan Foisy
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Listening to your music is like reading a series of short stories joined together by melody. What kind of headspace are you in when you begin writing music and where does it take you from there?
JT: That's the beauty of it—sheer randomness. It's authentic. A sensory response to the immediate: a word, image, emotion, memory, fragrance, color, the allure of the unknown, the forbidden, anything that enables me to "slip into the cracks," and find the way "in."
And even though I'm holding the reins, I never know where it will take me. I simply trust that I can hold on with all my might and see it through to the other side. That's the place where all songs live.
You cite some of your biggest influences as Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Bradbury, and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. Can you explain how they shaped your storytelling?
JT: These men had a profound effect on me. I was captivated by the glorious mystery, elegance, and succinct, yet smart storytelling. Often it was what you didn't see that really put the fear in you. Not to mention the dreamlike, sensual look to the films, dangerous romance, unsettling camera angles, surreal lighting.
As a child, I just wanted to live in those worlds. They seemed perfect to me. They still do.
How did music become your medium?
JT: Through classic cinema and film noir, I learned that MUSIC conjured the emotional response. The music held all the power. What was it about certain notes or scales? Why does a certain scale make us feel scared, aroused, and then another scale or chord is joyful? Is it simply mathematics, conditioning, or something visceral? Magical?
Composer Bernard Herrmann tells the tale of how Hitchcock originally wanted silence during the infamous Psycho shower scene! Can you even imagine it today without the trademark shrieking violins? That's a vital part of what makes that scene so memorable. And those violins alone evoke fear and violence whenever we hear them.
As a girl, when I'd sit at the piano, all of a sudden everything made sense. I had no idea what notes I was playing; it didn't matter. I realized that I had the ability to transport myself into my own musical netherworld and escape the confines of the every day.
I love your aesthetic. Have you always merged the netherworld with glamour and enchantment?
JT: Thank you. I've become synonymous with my style, which essentially is just ME. I've looked like this for years! (laughs) I wouldn't know any other way.
I've always been drawn to the elegance and grace of the silent screen era, gypsies and fortune tellers, the occult, and 1970s glam rock. My style is a collection of passions. I've always felt any glamour worth its shimmer has an equally ragged edge. I'm just as much Gloria Swanson as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
I read in a past interview that you recently had a "full circle" moment when you sang Bowie's "All the Young Dudes" with David J from Bauhaus. What went through your head at that moment?
JT: It was a total last minute thing. David called me in the afternoon—we were playing a double bill that evening in Hollywood—and suggested we sing it together. Of course I already knew the tune by heart! So, here I am onstage with the man who not only wrote "Bela Lugosi's Dead" but also played THAT legendary bass line, and we're singing a cover of David Bowie's "All the Young Dudes," written for Mott the Hoople! Ahhhh, talk about my goth and glam rock fantasies coming true! I was even wearing a sequin-embellished top hat at the time.
What other "full circle" moments stand out in your mind?
JT: Definitely meeting V. Vale of RE/Search. As a girl, I couldn't wait to devour the latest RE/Search book—Modern Primitives, Angry Women. I was transported by these pages into places I longed to be, and I only hoped someday I'd do something cool enough to be mentioned. Something worthy enough to inspire V. Vale to write about ME.
And so, last year the legendary scribe himself made a secret appearance to a concert unannounced and honored me by penning the most amazing review I've ever received. I was in tears reading it! My wish was granted. We have since become friends.
One of the wonderful things about you is how you connect with your audiences. Each performance is tapped into the energy of that audience and becomes a custom performance. The shows that stand out in my mind are the "Musical Seances" (with violinist Paul Mercer) where your fans bring objects from their dead and you channel that energy into the music. How did this relationship with your fans begin?
JT: My music and concerts are so emotionally driven in the first place. I feel that I need to be a beacon for people, and allow them into the swampy place in their souls where the sinister and sensual meet. I find it fascinating to delve into those places and take an audience with me.
After shows, fans would want to talk about the songs, the stories, their own lives and struggles. My performance would resonate with them in a deeper way than they were used to. I don't feel like I "put on a show" as much as engage and "transport" the audience into my world. They are brave enough to trust and follow me there.
I began incorporating more storytelling into my shows, my affinity for odd history and science tales, and audiences loved it. They became a defining part of the evening, and like you said, every show a singular experience.
When I began performing with Paul Mercer, we composed music "on the spot" in front of audiences. I call it "spontaneous musical combustion." The audience and environment completely drives the work. And the fans are thrilled because it's a piece of music inspired by them, in the moment, never to be heard again. People would come night after night because they wanted to hear what we would compose next and be part of it. It was ever-changing. It was alive.
With "The Musical Séance," we take it one step further and the crowd completely participates in the show. It's sort of musical psychometry. We ask audience members to bring in a cherished heirloom, or something of special significance to them: a photo, jewelry, toy, etc. They bring it to the stage and we use that object to channel the music.
The Musical Séance was exhausting at times. Night after night it was totally different. It was all about what the audience would bring to me. People would say, "This is a ring from my uncle who committed suicide." And I would put on the ring and begin to play the piano. I felt the energy and would present it musically. One particular night became so intense I was on the verge of fainting. Almost stopped the show.
Was channeling music something that came naturally to you or was it something you had to work on?
JT: It came naturally. As a child I was unaware of what I was doing. I used to call it "thinking." I'd sit at the piano, led by the energy, my fingers floating over the keys. I kept it a secret for years.
It's the exact opposite from working on songs, or even improvisations. You must abandon any sense of "working" on it, and allow yourself to be the portal. It's a "surrendering." I have no idea what I am playing. I'm not in charge anymore; it becomes so much bigger than that.
Tell me about the playing cards that are always displayed on your keyboard.
JT: I find divination in found objects. For the last twenty or so years, I've collected stray playing cards I find on the streets—I call it "sidewalk divination" or "cosmic poker." Boxes and boxes, hundreds of them are displayed in my apartment; they're some of my most precious belongings. Specific ones are with me at all times, just like my talismans and charms.
So always on my keyboard, there are cards. Fans from all over the world now send me cards and the shared energy is incredible. A letter read "I found this three of clubs in Minneapolis outside a restaurant and knew you had to have it."
A San Francisco man just presented me with a tattered envelope of stray cards he had collected for years. He hugged me, tears in his eyes.
I cherish that intimacy with my fans. There is nothing more poignant and beautiful. All these tokens and treasures aligning is something quite powerful.
It amuses me when people say "What do you mean you find cards on the street? I've never seen any…I'm looking for them all the time."
Well, that's the trick. You'll never find them if you go searching for them. The cards know the proper time and will reveal themselves, or not. Perhaps it's a life's lesson in patience.
What cards are the most powerful to you personally?
JT: Nine of Hearts has always been my ultimate card. It has appeared to me at very pivotal times. When I first moved to San Francisco, I found a Nine of Hearts right outside the Victorian where I later moved, and still live to this day. And of course, The Queen of Spades. That goes without saying. She's the femme fatale of the deck.
What does your astrological chart look like?
JT: I am a Double Moon Cancer. Ahhhh, say no more, that explains everything! (laughs)
Do you feel astrology affects who we are or who we will become?
JT: All of us are potently under the influence of the stars. But just like alcohol, it's up to us how much we can (and should) indulge. We will always own conscious choice.
Stars can illuminate the path, but cannot blaze our trail.
The planets are definitely coming along for the ride though—and they're calling shotgun.
For mystery and musings by the minute, follow Jill Tracy on Twitter:
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