She’s a classically trained violinist, composer, actor, burlesque act leader, author, former mental asylum resident, survivor, and inspiration. She’s Emilie Autumn. DOOM! caught up with Emilie on her “Fight Like a Girl Tour,” the afternoon before her performance at the Nile Theater in Mesa, Arizona.
DOOM: You’re on the “F.L.A.G.” Tour, behind the album, Fight Like a Girl, which is based on your book, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls.
Emile Autumn: Yes! By the way, I’m in the midst of trying to convert the book into an electronic version, to get the cost down so people could get the story at an affordable price.
DOOM: And you have an eye towards taking the story, and the music, to the theatrical stage; first in London, and eventually on to Broadway.
EA: Yes. You are correct!
DOOM: When you were writing what eventually became the book, under awful circumstances, was the show in the back of your head, as a goal, or was it more just a creative outlet; an emotional salve?
EA: In the beginning, at the moment I started compiling all the diary entries and putting it together, I was in such a place in my head that I couldn’t really think of anything really joyful, or victorious. Very shortly after, I realized what I had actually done, and when you read the book you can see that it’s obviously a script.
What’s funny, though, is that I always — since I was very small – did intend to write musicals, but I didn’t realize that *this* would be the story that I had to tell, so that was a bit unexpected. And yet, it’s the ultimate story. Had it been any less gut wrenching, and all of that, it wouldn’t really deserve a spot on Broadway, and I truly believe it does because, really, this is shit you can’t make up!
DOOM: Are you familiar with the TV show American Horror Story: Asylum? I ask because you’ve been talking about reclaiming the word “asylum”…
EA: OK, that’s weird. I hadn’t heard about it until Captain Maggots told me about it just about a week ago; she was watching it backstage and she way like ‘you have to see this!’
DOOM: Well, it fits with the vibe of your story, because much of it is about the horror of how we treat the mentally ill.
[We both fangirl out over Jessica Lange and then bond over both of us having Bipolar Disorder.]
DOOM: The first time I heard the album, before I knew it was intended to become part of a show, it felt like a libretto to me … it tells a really clear story.
EA: That’s why the lyrics intentionally feature the characters, so you know it’s not just about *me* anymore.
DOOM: I think it hit me as musical theater when, time after time, I listen to “Time for Tea”, I mentally insert that loud, shrill steam whistle from Sweeney Todd.
EA: Whoa! Sweet!
DOOM: It’s like a backwards peek into Johanna’s asylum.
EA: Exactly! That’s brilliant. I’m abso-frickin’-lutely a Sondheim fan. Really, the only musicals I’m not overly fond of – I hope I don’t offend anybody with this — are the Americana ones, like Oklahoma or Carousel. I think they don’t really … like the Morrissey song … it says nothing to me about my life, so I just don’t jibe with the Americana stuff. But everything else, that’s the music I grew up with. I didn’t grow up with rock music, at all. I didn’t go to a rock show ‘til I was in my 20s. It wasn’t even a part of my world; I was just surrounded by different things, and that (ed. musicals) was part of it.
DOOM: When you were writing the diary entries, you were in the hospital (ed. after a suicide attempt). A lot of kids, your fans – the Plague Rats – relate to the struggles you’ve been through.
DOOM: You’ve talked about fans coming to you and showing you their cutting scars; you try to give them the message that there are better ways to channel that really raw, overpowering, emotion-fueled energy. The song ‘One Foot In Front of the Other’ seems almost like the introduction to how to do that; start by just putting one foot in front of the other foot. Is that what you were going for?
EA: With ‘One Foot…’ it’s even bigger than that. It’s supposed to represent the ultimate answer, which is to the question that all of us have, whether we’ve had some really intense situations, or somebody’s had a really fucking bad day. Everybody has their something; there’s no one who doesn’t, and if they don’t, then they’re just not truly alive, because being truly alive means that sometimes you are going to hurt THIS much. At that time, for me, for the past 25 years, it’s been like “There’s gotta be an answer; there just has to be an answer for this: How do I go on? What do I do with all of this knowledge in my head?” What do you do with that? I mean I was given the ‘amnesia drug’; it didn’t take it away – it changed how my brain processes memories now – it sucks because I don’t recognize myself, but there’s nothing I can do about that now, except relearn how to think, but I didn’t forget anything. It’s all still there; everything from before the asylum, it’s all still there; it’s never going to go away. So there has to be a way to deal with these things and so that song is simply about answering ‘how do I make it go away?’ and ‘how do I go on?’ and realizing – one day, when I was writing F.L.A.G. – that I have an answer and the answer is that there is no answer, so just put one foot in front of the other foot, in front of the other foot. But the thing that I found, once I stopped looking for that magic thing, then I could find it within myself, because you stop searching outwards, and once you just let it go, and just stop and don’t waste the energy looking for that drug, or that magic thing … that magic word … that magic spell and just do it. It’s horrible, but Nike got it fucking right: Just Do It! I’m sorry, I would like to own that, but I can’t! So, how you go on is you just go on. And it doesn’t mean that’s easy, you just have to do it.
DOOM: The song doesn’t make it sound easy. It sounds like your pushing against a wall.
EA: Right, because the verses are just so desperate – it’s just questions – there are no statements, it’s just questions, questions, questions and then the chorus: this is the answer to these intense questions like “just because we live doesn’t mean we’re alive.” Like WHAT?!? “If I have no one left to fight, how do I know who I am?” Who would I be if everything were ok? Would I be anyone, if I were just totally happy right now, in a field of daisies, who would I be? Would I have the same name? I probably wouldn’t have a job (laugh) … clearly; this has become very useful to me. But it’s the thing; I think it’s worked as part of my career, but it could be anything … it’s something that makes you interesting. An artist, or a singer, or whatever … you don’t have to try to kill yourself a bunch of times, but you have to be interesting in some way, and that’s where I think I scored on this story, is that I’ll never be boring.
DOOM: So much of your material is inspired by real things in your life. This raises the issue of “personal” versus “persona”. I started thinking about this, from the standpoint of a pop-culture journalist, back when people got on Davey Havok of AFI for changing his style – looks and music – and fans laying a sense of entitlement on artists: “Why isn’t the album coming out faster? Why doesn’t the new album sound like the old ones?”
EA: Yeah, like we can’t evolve.
DOOM: The feeling fans have that they know you; Plague Rats and casual fans, alike. They feel so much that they have intimate knowledge of you. Do you find it difficult to walk that fine line, since you share so much of yourself, and to keep a sense of privacy, or boundaries? Do you feel like you have to do that?
EA: I think that what I’ve kind of done – and none of this is intentional; it just kind of happened. When this all came out (ed. the suicide attempt and hospitalization), it was this is how it is; let’s make myself comfortable with how things are, and then let’s use how things are to just be like “This is the way it is, what can we make out of this? How can this be comfortable for me? How can this basically be ‘hey…this is just my thing, now’?”
It went from being “Oh god, now I’m open about this; now *this* isn’t private anymore”, to where now it’s kind of like it’s my thing. It draws from other people; you get back what you put out, and that means that interactions between myself and the audience … individual members … people that I meet … are generally pretty intense, and I think I have to realize that.
It is really out there. It’s real. There isn’t a persona; even what we have on stage are really just amplified versions of aspects of our personalities. It’s like Captain Maggots (ed. Bloody Crumpet performer, Maggie Lally) is really Captain Maggots every day of her life – we just had tea down the street and she *is* Captain Maggots. Veronica (ed. Veronica Varlow) is … on stage, that’s not amplified; if anything it’s a contained version of who she is. She is insane … she’s gonna love you! (ed. DOOM! Usually does not include personal chit chat it its transcribed interviews, however we chose to let this ride).
I think people respond in the very devoted, loyal, intense, sincere way that they do, because they know that it’s actually very real, and it pulls equally intense real things out of them. It can obviously be difficult. You do have to – I’m sure anyone who’s in touch with the cosmos, with themselves, with their mind – knows you have to put a lot of practice and thought into how to create the shield that says ‘I will give out, but only things that will get back into me are things that are safe for me at this time.”
Everyone should do that, because it can get very, very intense … to where I’ll leave a meet-and-greet, and I’ll have to go hide in a hole and cry, because I’ve basically just been given – and it is like a gift; you can’t say ‘why is everybody piling on me?’ because I asked for this; I put this out there, and you can’t put this out unless you want this to come back. I’m sharing my story, they’re sharing their stories. But it really can get very intense if you don’t learn – and this is an everyday learning process; I’ve in no way totally figured this out yet – to just build a safe zone around yourself, where you can calmly deal with really emotional things that people are telling you. Also, that way, you can just calmly think about what’s the best advice to give – a lot of it is meeting that obligation. A lot of it is encouragement, because people do come and show scars and all of this. I don’t want to make it out that this is all that the audience is about, because they’re so much more, but there is that aspect. But the audience is 12 years old to like in their 60s; equally male/female divided now. Some people come in jeans and a t-shirt and think “well, this looks interesting”, and some people come in full dress, which is absolutely valid and cool.
If you come knowing nothing about the intensity and the depth and the realism of all this; if you just come and think “This is a good piece of entertainment. I enjoyed that!” I do consider that as absolutely as valid as someone who came here thinking that together we’re saving each other’s lives – and in a way, we are, because the one thing for me and for them, is knowing that we’re not alone. I think that if any one sentence could have saved me in past situations that were very intense, where like I’m about to make a “big decision”, having one person there to say to me – not even try to stop me from doing anything – but just say “You’re not alone” that could’ve changed my world, but no one was there. There was absolutely no one who said that; who could say that.
[At this point we were told “One more question.” Emilie and the interviewer both protested, but hurried on]
DOOM: Well, I think I’m going to roll about three questions into one …
EA: This is great! I love talking to you because this is how my mind works, too.
DOOM: Your music is a literal and metaphorical smashing together of Victoriana and Industrial, do you see a connection between Victorian times and modern, industrial times in general and how it relates to mental illness?
EA: Absolutely, yes.
DOOM: This is a story about women, but you’ve said it’s meant for everyone. In the song “Fight Like a Girl” you sing “Even if you’re only a boy you can fight like a girl.”
EA: Right! I love that line as well, because it is NOT meant to be insulting … it’s meant to be a wink and a nod and a big love-hug to my boys, and I say, with absolute sincerity on stage, “My girls are my warriors, but my boys are my heroes.” It’s true; it only has to be girls against boys if boys want to fight about this. But there’s no reason, because what’s good for us is good for them. What’s good for them is good for us.
The massive lack of balance, globally, in how the world is structured and run, amongst humankind, with everything being so completely out of balance, it’s not serving anyone. It’s just that the people in power, who are almost all male, are just not realizing that there’s an over-run of yang energy without any yin in it at all, and that’s just incredibly destructive. The yin needs the yang in it; that’s what the circle means – the yang needs the yin. It’s incredibly important. It doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, gay, trans, whatever; you have both of these energies in you, to some degree. If you have only yin, completely feminine energy, that’s absolutely destructive as well … that is coming from a weak place … you need both. And only yang energy is fucking dangerous; and that is why the world is the way it is: that is why it’s violent, that is why it’s terrifying, that is why it is ugly. You have one energy just running absolutely rampant. And that is not the definition of a man. That isn’t a man’s energy; that’s a fucked-up, twisted perversion of only a part of a man’s energy.
DOOM (intern Jimmy Rox): It’s like in Star Wars; it doesn’t work when it’s just the Jedi; it doesn’t work when it’s just the Sith …
EA: Yes! Thank you for mentioning Star Wars, because I love Star Wars! The first song, when I was two years old … the first song where I actually used my voice, was me standing up in my crib singing the Star Wars theme. My parents actually got that on tape. I don’t have anything now, because everything was burned, but I actually did listen to that when I was about 7 because I didn’t believe it was a true story, and I fucking sang it and it was fucking dead on! Fuckin’ Star Wars!
DOOM (to EA’s liason): Can I sneak in just one more; something quick and light…
EA: I love you!
DOOM: There’s an upsurge in classically trained, female, avant garde, string players. I’m thinking specifically of Zoe Keating on cello…
EA: Right, she’s awesome, and really sweet.
DOOM: And Lindsey Stirling …
EA: I’m actually not familiar with her, I’m sorry.
DOOM: She plays electric violin while doing ballet … she’s not a gimmick, she’s immensely talented. So, do you think there’s a thing driving this emergence?
EA: I knew about Zoe, but didn’t see the thing happening. I think it’s true that there’s something that, at one moment is not really cool, but you get one person with the right look, the right personality and then it’s like “of course it’s cool, because that person is doing it” and then it has the spark and all of a sudden you see this person, this girl who can actually do this shit, like me … like Zoe … and then it’s really not that big of a deal for the next person to also come along and do it, you just need these little sparks. That would explain it to me: that we’re all making it easier for each other, and that’s excellent.
It’s great that there are people using real skill, that someone’s worked really hard at for a lifetime, and not just “I learned three chords in my garage” … that’s not music, that’s not art, that’s not skill. It’s fun, and it can be entertaining, but it’s not what I’m after; it’s a different art form altogether; it’s like roller skating … no real relation.
DOOM: Like skateboarding and ballet …
EA: Exactly! Both awesome, but very, very different!
DOOM: Emilie Autumn, if you woke up tomorrow morning and it was the Zombie Apocalypse, what would you do? [ed. this question was actually the first one asked in the interview, because we were on a very tight schedule, and didn’t want to miss Emilie’s answer!]
EA: Oooh! Give me a moment, because I’m taking this very seriously. It’s not like you really have a lot of options. I think I’d probably join ‘em. I’d probably try to play along and I would suspect – this is like getting too-too into this – but I would suspect that a lot of other people were playing along, as well. Then I feel like we’d somehow find each other.
DOOM: Well, you’re good with make-up…
EA: Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. I think we – the girls and I – would use our collective make-up skills and we would fit in perfectly. It’s ACTING! I would make the Zombie Apocalypse my greatest make-up challenge.