NOTE: This interview was originally printed as a beautiful 6-page spread in New Zealand’s Nocturne Magazine, Issue #5. We are proud to present it online for you here!
JILL TRACY: On Mystery, Music, and the Mütter Museum
by Fiona McKechnie (for Nocturne Magazine, New Zealand)
photo by Audrey Penven
Jill Tracy is a conjuror of the enigmatic; a purveyor of the extraordinary and raconteur of dark delights. She weaves her web with delicate soundscapes, seducing us into her parlour with eerie tales, which are sinister, yet captivatingly sweet. A singer, songwriter, composer, performer and all-around creative wonder, Jill has her delicate fingers in many delicious pies!
We found Jill tangled amongst a fury of live performances, recordings and music channeling: freeing herself for a moment to talk with us about some of the many projects she is currently immersed in.
Your music conjures such strong impressions of the past, each taking the listener back to a different by-gone era. What do you think it is about the past that is so seductive?
Jill Tracy: My music doesn’t evoke the Past so much as it does a sense of pure Timelessness. Transcendent of Time. That’s what makes it seductive; creating that place––familiar yet oddly intriguing. It resonates on a soulful level, but still maintains an air of the mysterious. That’s the magic music allows —like a trap door or portal, it accompanies us—to a place we never knew existed, but wish to go.
I’m honored to be this gatekeeper of emotions. Throughout my life, I’ve simply followed my own muses. I’ve always just composed the score I hear inside my head. Music from the mind’s eye… To listen to my music is to know me.
I have always been drawn to fantastical, otherworldly imagery. Worlds sans-time. As a child, I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Jean Cocteau. I just wanted to live in those worlds. I still do.
So I did the next best thing: I devoted my life to creating my own musical netherworld.
You’ve performed a number of ‘Musical Séances,’ with violinist Paul Mercer, over the years. At these events attendees bring along objects, trinkets, belongings that remind them of loved ones and you ‘channel’ live music using these possessions. What is it like to speak with the dead through music?
JT: Paul and I never approach it that way. It would be outrageous and in bad taste to claim we are “speaking to the dead through music.” If anything, it’s about honoring the dead, not mocking them, or selling hokum like sideshow hucksters.
The “Musical Séance” is a collective summoning inspired by beloved objects. Quite frankly, it’s more about the present than the past, music channeled from that fragile moment captured among the living. From sentiment to sadness, frivolity and fear. It’s musical psychometry.
Audience members are asked to bring tokens of special significance, such as a photo, talisman, jewelry, toy. This is a very crucial part of manifesting the music. Every object holds its story, its spirit. Energy, resonance, impressions from anyone who has ever held the object, to the experiences and emotions passed through it.
Often, these curiosities themselves are just as compelling as the music they inspire. We’ve encountered everything from cremated cats, dentures, haunted paintings, 16th century swords, antlers, and x-rays.
But one thing I’ve learned is––everyone in the world has a story to tell that will break your heart.
How did this process of channeling music evolve?
JT: My music and live performances have always been so emotionally driven to begin with– I would see people sometimes crying in the front row, or they’d come up to me after a set relating how a particular song got them through a rough time, or helped them find their true path, etc. I’ve realized I’ve become a beacon for so many kindred souls. And that’s very important to me. That genuine direct connection with an audience is such a rarity these days—in a world where entertainment has become vacuous and superficial. We are about as real as it gets.
I wanted the audience to become even more a part of my process, and actually compose pieces in front of them, culled from their energy. It’s a perfect circle. The audience gives to me, and I channel it musically and give it right back, creating a piece that will exist solely for us in those few minutes. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced. A musical umbilical cord.
That led me to immersing myself in unusual locations laden with mysterious history, and manifesting music from my reaction to the environment. The intense purity and immediacy is so exciting. You are hearing my raw response at the piano. I call it “spontaneous musical combustion” (as homage to “spontaneous human combustion,” and my affinity for peculiar history and science tales.)
I’ve found myself conjuring the hidden score inside haunted castles, abandoned asylums, decrepit mansions, gardens, and theaters. It’s definitely one of my greatest pleasures right now.
The lovely and difficult thing about this work is that I can’t prepare for it, as I never know what to expect. I must allow myself to be completely vulnerable; simply feel, and react. It’s not about me anymore; it’s about the music, the story. It becomes so much bigger than any of us. That’s the beauty of it.
It seems appropriate that you hold these musical séances when your music is so often described as being ‘haunting’ and ‘otherworldly’. Perhaps you are a bit of an apparition yourself?
JT: (laughs) Jello Biafra is quoted as saying “Drop dead original and dark as a drowning pool…I sometimes wonder if Jill Tracy is actually a ghost.”
I’ve been described as a musical sorceress, evocateur, intrigante, woman of mystery, ‘dark Queen of Melancholia,’ ‘femme fatale for the thinking man.’ All of these descriptives I adore. I guess when you feel out-of-sorts with the world, you must create your own.
From spiritualism to alchemy – what fine potions have you been working on by which to enchant us through another of the senses?
JT: I engage such a full-sensory arc in my work. I’ve always wanted to create fragrances to correspond to the music, similar to the way we concoct visuals with each album. Why not engage the olfactory? The sense of smell is directly linked to the limbic system, the part of the brain where emotion and memory are centered!
I’m collaborating with master perfumist Emerson Hart of Nocturne Alchemy. We’ve released two scents: Silver Smoke and Star of Night. I’m addicted to them already and have been wearing them constantly. More to come!
It’s been so exciting and fulfilling to smell these fragrances on different skins, everyone brings their signature to the scent and it changes person-to-person.
Night fragrance for Night music…
You’re currently in the middle of a new project with the Mütter Museum, where you have been invited to create compositions inspired by their collection of medical oddities. How did this come about?
JT: Yes, I’m honored to make history as the first musician to be awarded a grant, which is enabling me to compose music inside the Mütter Museum, a series of compositions directly inspired by pieces in the collection. It was vital for me to be in the presence of these long-lost souls, as I composed and recorded. I needed to immerse myself in their world. There is so much lurking here. This glorious synergy– the collection of souls together from various time periods and walks of life, most who endured extreme and rare medical conditions. I needed to be with them as I composed and make them a real part of the creation. This is my gift to them.
What inspired you to want to compose with the museum as a backdrop?
JT: The Mütter Museum has always been on of my favorite places on earth. When I first visited, I remember vividly standing on the red-carpeted steps leading down to the lower level and hearing the buzz. It was overwhelming. All these people, all these stories, together—yet apart, remembered—yet forgotten. I was swept in a whirlwind of feelings: admiration, pity, fright, shock, respect, repulsion, sadness. I just wanted to sit and listen, to hear their tales, to know them.
As you explore the Hyrtl Skull Collection, for example: Each has a brief story written in meticulous cursive on the side of the skull: Suicide by gunshot wound of the heart because of “weariness of life.” Lovesick teenager, a soldier, a shoemaker, well-known murderer, a tightrope walker who died of a broken neck, a hanged man, and a famous Viennese prostitute. All this life and death shared together in one glass case. It’s phenomenal.
There is such a brave beauty in these souls who had to endure these afflictions. I want to bring them to life through my music—peel away the clinical guise, dwell deeper, find the voices hiding within these walls.
All of my work will be factual. I’m in the throes of extensive research at the museum, even utilizing excerpts from letters and doctors’ records. My goal is to evoke the spirit, set a mood that transports you inside just by listening.
What experiences have you had so far while working within the Mütter Museum?
What is it like to create music in a setting that is normally very sterile and diagnostic?
JT: Well, for many, the study of science and disease is viewed as quite dry and clinical. There exists a strong disconnect with the examination of the disease itself and the dear souls who had to endure these afflictions. The personal saga of these brave patients is not often well documented, nor discussed. I remember as a child being obsessed with old medical textbooks and tomes, and upset that I could never find out more about the people in these books, but merely the disease.
But the Mütter is a different experience. It is indeed a medical teaching museum. But, Dr. Mütter’s entire point for starting the museum was to teach empathy and compassion. There lies in that a tremendous sense of marvel for me.
I want to honor the emotional side, the human experience from the Mutter’s collection. You may read about Harry Eastlack, the ossified man, whose rare disease (FOP) caused his entire body to slowly transform into bone. Young, handsome, vibrant– painstakingly trapped beneath a second skeletal cage. In the end, he could only move his lips. What was he like? How did he cope? What was his day-to-day experience? It’s unfathomable to me. I was thrilled to be able to read through Harry’s private files in the Mütter collection, letters, photos, extensive doctors’ records.
I composed and recorded the work “Bone by Bone” as I sat next to Harry’s famed skeleton. I needed him with me, to truly be part of the song, and not just the subject matter.
One of the most moving pieces I’m creating is entitled “My First and Last Time Alone,” about conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker. Most of us know them as the original Siamese Twins, gloriously renowned performers who toured the world (even appeared before presidents and Queen Victoria)—married sisters, fathered 21 children, and employed the use of a “privacy sheet.” But after doing extensive research, I was completely devastated when I read how they died. The song is about that heartbreaking 3-hour period on a cold January night.
I was with Chang and Eng’s actual death cast, and their conjoined liver as I composed the piece. This was one of the most compelling experiences I’ve ever had. Abiding by the twins’ wishes, the liver was never separated, even after death.
How does the musical ‘channelling’ differ from the process you go through when composing (for example, the score for F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu) and/or writing the songs for your previous albums?
JT: It’s completely the opposite. In the case of film scoring, visuals dictate the music. I’m hanging on the visual, emotional cues–serving them. Channeling music is like jumping off a cliff. I’m not even conscious of it. It’s a visceral reaction to an energy, a sensation.
When I was scoring Nosferatu, I spent so much time in Murnau’s eerie world that the imagery would seep into the present. I remember vividly crossing a busy San Francisco street, looking down and suddenly seeing rats scurrying everywhere in a grainy, chiaroscuro haze.
When writing songs for my own albums, I get to take the reins. That process is much more personal.
Is there a famous figure from history you would like to try to connect with through one of their belongings? Anyone you would like to bring forth in a musical séance for your own pleasure?
JT: Wow, what a fantastic question! I can think of so many great ones: Count St. Germain’s velvet cloaks, Nikola Tesla and his beloved white pigeon, Rod Serling- via his Night Gallery paintings. I’d give anything to sit behind John Bonham’s drum kit, or play Richard Wright’s (Pink Floyd) piano.
Have you always been interested in history and its secrets?
JT: For me it was more about the unknown rather than just history stories. I loved asking certain questions and realizing no adult knew the answer. I learned there was a much deeper level that no one seemed to be able or brave enough to tap into.
I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. And I’d read about toads and frogs and blood raining from the sky. Or Count Saint Germain, who was recorded to have lived for hundreds of years. He said his secret to immortality was to eat oatmeal and wear velvet encrusted with gemstones. To this day, no one knows exactly who he was, where he came from and if indeed he was immortal.
Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend—these are the things that make us feel most alive. The most wonderful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers.
At Nocturne Magazine, we ask our readers to suspend disbelief and become curious again. Is this also your hope for the future, that people allow themselves to be seduced by the mystery of life?
JT: Yes, I live to honor the mystery. I need to be a beacon for people, and allow them into the swampy place in their souls where the sinister and sensual meet. Peel away the layers of comfort and convention we hide behind. I find it fascinating to delve into those places and take an audience with me. Allow people to slip into the cracks, pry up the floorboards and search deeply. Believe. Imagine. It’s so important to hold on to that childlike sense of marvel.
Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters.