“When you come to this show, it’s a place of complete acceptance. This is what’s funny, that despite all the dark things that inspired all of this, even the dark places in my mind where this art came from, it ended up being this very joyful and celebratory experience about unity.”
This interview was a long time in the making. Originally I was going to meet Emilie in Utrecht (the Netherlands) but due to someone’s untimely death (that of the guy who jumped in front of a train and paralyzed the transportation system) I didn’t make it in time. Although we were given the option of simply doing the interview over Skype or by phone, I offered to go to Brussels (Belgium) and do it in person.
While it is true that I’m far from being a “true plague rat” (as Emilie’s fans call themselves) at least in the sense that I don’t know all the songs by heart or that I don’t wear costumes, I find Emilie both very talented and interesting. The dichotomy between the classically-trained violinist on one side, and the fairy/goth/mad/burlesque musician and performer on the other, is something that had always captured my attention, and I couldn’t wait to talk more about it. Finally, there was also the fact that Emilie is Bipolar, a characteristic that I also share, which made the whole idea of an interview even more attractive.
Although we were scheduled at 3:30, Emilie was still doing another interview with a couple of goth (I’m sorry if I get the different sub-cultures wrong) girls who were from a magazine about cupcakes. I know that this seems a bit bizarre but Emilie is an avid cook, she likes cupcakes (although who doesn’t?) and since a big part of her imagery revolves around tea time… what goes better with tea than pastries?
Then it’s just Emilie and us. As soon as she realizes that I’m the guy who couldn’t make it before because of that guy’s suicide, she immediately asks to hug me and thanks me for meeting her there.
As we sit down I casually mention that I read this on her twitter:
As I see that she’ll elaborate on the answer, I quickly turn on the camera and commence the adventure… At 4 o’Clock. (watch the video at the bottom of the page!)
Emilie Autumn: It isn’t so much in person interviews that it has been silly. It’s been exclusively when I do e-mail interviews. Most of the questions are exactly the same, which is especially annoying because they are written, since you could easily just go and look at all the other interviews.
Why would you write the exact same thing that was asked in another interview? They are completely the same! If anybody wanted to know anything about me, they could easily just look at any of them. Even the fans on the forums have been saying “all the questions are the same; what’s the point of this?”
The first question that all of these emails have been asking is “Can you describe yourself, your show and your music to our audiences who don’t know you?” Well, as I said pretty clearly in 140 characters or less… isn’t that kind of your job as a journalist? This is your opportunity to use your own words and say your own opinions about this person or this thing… do some goddamn research!
However, it doesn’t apply to a situation like this when we’re just talking, it’s just when it’s written, because you can easily just copy and paste those words from other people. I think that any artist would be annoyed by it, because if you paint a picture or write a novel, you do the art, you don’t describe it. It’s other people’s jobs to understand it or not and to describe or not, but it doesn’t seem like it should be your job to explain what you’re doing. As an artist you create it, you put it out there and it’s other people’s jobs to come up with the words to go with it, because I’ve already done my part.
That being said, that does not apply to our situation. Ask anything under the sun that you would like to, because I’m happy to speak with you about anything.
Metal Blast: This show in the Fight Like a Girl (FLAG) tour, is some sort of preview of the musical you’re working on, right?
Emilie: Yes, that’s absolutely what it is. It’s just a bit of a hint of where all of this is going; from the past, Opheliac, the tours and all the things that started all of this, especially in Europe where all of this began. It took more years for North America to even care about anything. It was about me, with the help of my girls on stage, to kind of set the tone and the atmosphere to what all of this crazy asylum world is about, this kind of unique genre-bending musical style and me having a unique perspective of life (at least I’d like to think that). Now that this stage has been set, it’s all about telling a story, which has become more important even than, as crazy as it may seem, the music. Although the music is the most important part of the puzzle that tells the story, it’s the main voice of it all, what I’ve realized is that, most of all, what I want to be in this life is a great storyteller, using music, visuals, sex, comedy and humor to tell a story with a real message, a real point and real entertainment.
But, yeah, you’re absolutely right (thank you for noticing!) that all that this is about is telling just a bit of what we can fit in a rock venue. Right now we are a cast of four girls and what this is being made into is a massive theatrical production with a cast of, maybe, 40 people, so it’s our job to give a hint of where this is all going and to pave the way for 2014 and the musical debut in London’s West End.
Afterwards we’ll take the musical everywhere, but it’s the sort of thing that, in order to be done properly, because it’s the story of my 5-pound book, “The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls”, it’s such an epic and massive story, that you simply cannot fit it into a rock venue. We are sincerely honored to play in all of these places; it’s an amazing experience to be somewhere new every day and to meet all these people around the globe, but the show that we’re trying to put on needs to be in a theater. We need to have a residency, so it’s the same place every night for at least a month or two; you need rafters, proper set changes, a pit for an orchestra to go into…
And that’s where I get to spend the next two years, pretty much just locking myself in cave (besides touring) writing constantly the rest of the soundtrack to this thing and deciding who the rest of the 40 people of this cast are going to be, because that’s a lot! But there are just so many characters…
We have rats! We have a whole army of rats, which has been another fun thing to think about: Will they be animatronics, puppets or shadows behind a screen? I’ve decided that at least Basil and Sir Edward, the two primary rats, who are the logo of the show, the shirts, everything, will actually be people in costume.
It sounds so ridiculous, but I figured that if Andrew Lloyd Weber can do it with fucking cats then we can have rats. And then they get their own musical called Rats! Think it for the future!
We’ll never be bored.
MB: The plot of this musical is based on your book which is, at least partially, based on your “tenure” as a mental patient.
Emilie: Well said! That was such a dignified way to say it.
MB: I’m bipolar as well and had my own “tenure” so…
Emilie: You are? Congratulations! *fistbump*
MB: If we were to talk of a beginning, middle and end. What exactly is the plot, how much of it is real?
Emilie: Well, that’s the thing, that in a way all of it is real, in the sense that there isn’t a point where everything becomes “pretend”; all of these things actually happened, these letters, these writings, these characters, these things that I actually dream in that world, even today, with these people. I know these people; these are my friends, my enemies and my environment; this has become my reality and I figure that to certain people it may sound a bit bizarre, but it’s as valid a reality as any other.
I don’t think that we all live and share the same reality; I think that we all have our own way of existing and that we, as a society, agree on a common reality to just exist together and get along. It’s similar to the way in which I think of colors, in the sense that we probably don’t see the color blue in the exact same way, and yet we all agree on the fact that blue is a colder color, the color of the sky and the ocean, etc.
I know that I’m getting off-track, so feel free to stop me. I don’t mind that, since I talk a lot.
MB: Well, it’s one of our characteristics…
Emilie: It is! The thoughts just keep happening all the time.
MB: About that… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Stephen Fry.
MB: In that documentary, with the exception of one patient, all the others said that if they were given the chance, they would not press a button to “turn off” their bipolarity.
Emilie: Exactly! I reference that a lot, even in the book, because it’s such… well, I guess it’s the same for you. For me it’s been a life-long question; you force certain parts of your life, although not all the time, especially if you’re not medicated and definitely if you’re not properly medicated (because, as you know, it takes a lifetime to figure out the right combinations and then they change as you grow older) trying to figure out how to be alright.
For a big chunk of your life you’re on the brink of death pretty much every moment, and it’s just one these characteristics (in case anybody doesn’t know) of being bipolar, which is this thing that I’ve always thought as a little shadow on your shoulder, all the time, even in the good days, whispering in your ear, out of nowhere, “why are you doing this? Just stop”. And you’re like “What the fuck!?”; even if everything is ok, it’s just pushing you out that window. Some days you actually try and jump… and end up in a mental institution! That’s how this started.
MB: Would you press that button?
Emilie: I don’t know… sometimes I think that I would, because of another thing that I wrote in the book, because it just hit me: No kind of high is worth this kind of low. When it’s low there is no redeeming factor, you can’t even remember what it feels like to be ok; you can’t think “Oh, but that time was good… it will get better!” because, in that moment, it won’t get better, there is no better, it’s just pure darkness and obliteration.
To be honest the answer would of course change. Right now, where I am in an OK phase… well, you’ll never be normal. Right now I’m able to realize, like most of the people [in that documentary], the beauty of that because, as self important as it may seem, it undeniably gives you absolute access to a portal to another realm. When I say that this is real, well this is real, because this happened; this story is real.
As a writer, a creative person, [bipolar disorder] gives you access to a place that you would not otherwise be able to go to. Well, maybe it’s not that you wouldn’t be able to go there, but at least not with the same instantaneous ease. A lot of what I’ve made has been effortless, at least the original writing and composition; I wake up and it’s all in my head at once. I don’t write on an instrument, I don’t need to, it’s all in my head, everything at the same time; and because of musical training I can easily identify a whole symphony of parts and just fucking write them down. You know that it’s all you, but it’s this part of you that can go to these other places and bring this stuff back.
Ultimately, I would not press that button… would you?
MB: … Sometimes?
Emilie: Exactly. It changes because, you know, Bi-Polar, you have at least two distinct parts that are constantly fighting with each other for dominance. Anything that I answer is not going to be the same, because when I have access to that other thing then it’s all completely different.
MB: Do you think that your artistic development, and everything that you’ve done, was because of or in spite of Bipolar disorder?
Emilie: Both! See? I think that anything that we talk about is going to be neither or both… and it just depends on what time it is, what color light it is outside or if it’s raining or not.
Although I would have probably thought the same thoughts, I could have been creative in the same way or could have even written the same things without having this disorder, it wouldn’t have happened as effortless, fluidly and magically (for lack of a better word, because it is truly a magical place that you go to in the good times); it wouldn’t have happened that way if it weren’t for that part of the disease.
And yet, because I don’t really have, or at least don’t want to give myself, the option to just stop being creative in the times when I’m not feeling that magic, I’ve had to, especially on this last album (Fight Like A Girl) and in preparation for this tour, really go into a private, dark and deep cave to almost figure out how to do it, how to end up in the same place from the very beginning. It’s been almost relearning how to create and how to write. It sounds really deep, but it was actually terrifying. I was trying to be properly medicated, for the first time; I was trying to create from a place where everything wasn’t crazy all the time; a place of somewhat, at least for some times, normalcy, and that terrified me, because it was, in a small way, pushing that button by simply agreeing to be medicated. For some of the time I didn’t have access to that immediate place of that level of just insane and unstoppable creativity where I’m writing on the ceiling or taking apart pieces of toilet tissue because I ran out of writing material in the house or writing all over the walls. That’s how Opheliac was made, that’s how almost everything was made and how the book was made; that’s how everything is created. Then you take that away and you’re like “ok, now I feel like a normal person… where does this come from?”… and then you realize that being a normal person is still a really beautiful thing and that you are you and that all of that was always inside of you, it wasn’t somebody else, it didn’t come from a different place.
I had to find a way that would allow me, during these periods (brief as they may be) of being OK, to still access the same material that comes from the craziness, and although I figured out how, for the most part, to do that, it was like learning how to walk and breathe all over again, and it was really scary because there was a point at the beginning of the writing of this album when I thought “Oh my God… everything is gone, and I can’t get back to that world”.
MB: Now that you are medicated, you know that this is a chronic thing, that you’ll use them forever, right?
Emilie: Yes, absolutely the rest of my life… unless I make the decision not to be here anymore, which I would respect in myself or other people to say “Ok, I’m done with this; I don’t want to live this way”. This because the side effects of the medication are arguably absolutely as bad as the disease and not being medicated.1
MB: Did your stay in an institution alter your perception of psychiatry?
Emilie: My perception of everything! I was a completely different person when I came out, and that’s how it all happened.
On the bright side, it gave me an amazing story to tell, which is why I have the honor of being able to be sitting here with you and be thought of as a somewhat interesting enough person to talk to you, which is amazing for me because I don’t think of myself that way. But this is why we’re here.
It’s something that’s so much bigger now, because it is more real than, you know, a girl wearing corsets and writing songs; it’s about this whole asylum reality.
MB: Does it worry you that some fans may simply see you as “a chick with a corset, it seems kind of fun”?
Emilie: Actually, it doesn’t. Even if they did, I would have no problem with that. I think that the vast majority of Plague Rats understand… well, I think that there are different levels. There are the real hardcore Plague Rats that probably really identify with this very closely, so they probably have many experiences in common, as they’ve told me a lot of times. It’s very difficult and sad to say, but they’ll come to me and show me scars in their arms, so I’ll make a deal with them and tell them “Look, I’ve got those too, but I’m not doing this anymore, because I’ve managed to find an outlet, and you can also do this”, so we make a deal and shake hands like “You take care of yourself, I’ll take care of myself”. When we shake hands on it we then have a responsibility to each other, so they don’t forget that I won’t be OK if they’re not OK. I hope that that means something to them.
I think that it’s in all kinds of levels, and I’ve always said that for people who really have a deep connection with this, and come to the show and listen to music this way, that’s lovely; for people that are just interested in the kind of psychological study level or because they think it’s an interesting story, that’s also fine. I don’t want it to really even matter whether people know that it’s true, that it’s real, that it’s serious and that it’s about all of this stuff; if they come for the music, the show or any of this simply thinking “this looks fun, this looks entertaining, I like the songs, I can dance to this, it’s a fun environment to be in”, to me that’s completely as valid as any other thing, because part of my job in this is to create a legitimate and entertaining spectacle and experience. I’ve got so much respect for an art form that can simply attract someone that looks at a poster and goes “Alright, that looks cute”. I think that that’s just great.
MB: When I went to your show in Utrecht I saw a lot of people in, no offense costumes.
Emilie: No, that’s wonderful! I love that!
MB: With some of them it was like “Well, that’s very elaborate” and with others it was more like “…I don’t know how your parents let you leave the house like that”.
Emilie: Yeah, I know! I think that’s part of it.
MB: Although other bands have fans that love them, it’s never with the level of devotion of your fans. This was, by far, the most impressive thing for me. How or when did you realize that they were feeling this way towards you?
Emilie: I still have these thoughts every day: I don’t know how the fuck this happened.
I have the suspicion that it’s because from the very beginning it was all very real and sincere, so people can tell that this isn’t something with marketing or anything; there are no labels or outside funds, this comes completely from me, my crew and my cast; the writing is entirely just me and it comes from very real places and experiences. I think that…. It’s sort of a profound thing that I realized after Opheliac came out, which is that the moment I stopped caring about what anybody else thought was the moment when others started caring about what I thought. I didn’t know that this is how it works, but apparently it is.
I think that once it became apparent that my goal, my own life and my message (if it can be said that I have one) is the realization of the individual, to create yourself externally and internally in whatever way you’re comfortable with, as your personal work of art, glorifying all the individual thoughts that you have, celebrating all the things that make you unique. It’s a very simple concepts, but, just like many other “simple” things, it’s the most difficult to accomplish in life, like E.E. Cummings said, in a world that tries its best, every day of your life, to make you like everyone else.2 That’s what, I think, we are all constantly fighting against.
I think that when it became clear that this is what I was trying to do for myself, and that that’s what everything I show is about, than it’s more than a girl writing songs and singing on stage, then it became about an environment where all of this was welcomed. When you come to this show, it’s a place of complete acceptance. This is what’s funny, that despite all the dark things that inspired all of this, even the dark places in my mind where this art came from, it ended up being this very joyful and celebratory experience about unity, the individual, strength and empowerment for both women and men, because in most countries it’s a complete 50-50 split. It has also become very popular for gays, lesbians, transvestites and everything in between, and this is something that I couldn’t have possibly sought of or expected… I just sat back and watched and realized , with complete humility, that it is not just about me anymore, I’m just one small part of this whole story, of this whole experience and atmosphere, of this asylum world which, as the word means, is a sanctuary and a place to go to be safe… Although, as I’ve always said, this is not what it was in 1850 and it isn’t what it is now.
MB: Do you think that your music is mostly directed towards women and girls?
Emilie: Not at all. I think, as many feminist writers, authors and musicians that have the privilege of being out and speaking in a public forum to other people, that, definitely, while it has an illusion of being only about women and women’s empowerment, the reason why it is completely not one sided is because what is good for us is absolutely good for you. There aren’t, and shouldn’t be, different rules or sources of power for half and half or majorities and minorities… because women are the majority, we’re 51% of the human population.
MB: So the “revenge” against the 49% that you mention in “Fight Like a Girl” is just a figure of speech?
Emilie: Well, it’s two things.
One, it’s from the story, which is what all of this is originally about; if you read the book then you’ll find that simply this is the way it was, this is completely historically accurate: there is this asylum, that is for girls. Obviously, there weren’t really any female doctors, simply because there weren’t many female anything, other than wives, mothers and prostitutes (if you cared to make any money). The standards by which women and girls were kept to were almost impossible to achieve and live up to as far as purity goes, where you could be locked up for just breathing the wrong way. Naturally, the women were abused and oppressed by the men in this thing, because that’s just the way it was, so for telling a true story about this, that is how it’s going to be. And when the women in this asylum, these girls finally find their way out, which is how the story starts, they need to eradicate the enemy and in this story, yes, they are men, because that’s the way it was. This is reality.
Now, this is about the story, but it does cross over into the fact that we are not at all represented anywhere in the world, in some worse than others, in an equal way. This is still considered a man’s world… how do you think that feels? From the time we’re born, it sucks.
MB: In an interview about your veganism you made a comparison between the treatment of animals and women in our society. Now, I agree that women are still discriminated against; they make less money for the same work, there’s rape, “corrective rape” in Africa, etc.
Emilie: Yeah; Rape is a weapon of war! I mean, what the fuck!?
MB: Having said that, do you really think that, at least in the West, we can compare the slaughtering of animals to the treatment of women?
Emilie: The truth is that I didn’t come up with that, it is something that I agree with. There are two points that I can make about it. It was somebody else, a lot greater and smarter than me, that actually said that the humanity and kindness of a society can often be judged by the way that it treats its animals.3 That being said, it is not necessarily about the eating of the animals; it doesn’t have to do with veganism or even vegetarianism. It’s about the way in which animals are killed for consumption, something that could be done honorably and with respect, but then you see these very real videos of people stringing up animals in slaughter houses and just hitting them with a baseball bat for fun. This is a huge comparison with the insane asylums now, but especially back in the day, where the people that would be hired as attendants to chain up the inmates (men or women, because there were asylums for both, obviously) were, in their majority, from the lowest classes of society and who had either been criminals who had escaped from prison. Basically, you get the lowest of the low in terms of immoral people, and put them in charge of the correction of these other people, most of which were never crazy at all. Those are the people that have in their hands the treatment of the animals, and as long as that is allowed and enforced… because you can also get those people to work for a lot less, and that’s really what this is about, that you can pay them less for the same work than you’d pay to actual people who would be a lot more humane, be it in mental institutions or slaughterhouses.
Me being a vegetarian, vegan or whatever, is not about me saying that in order for women to be treated well you must be a vegan. It is not about that. It’s that there are ways to approach the treatment of animals, even if they’re raised for food consumption, that is humane. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think that it’s unnatural for all humans to eat meat; I mean, we have a long history of doing so, you see tribes where, clearly, that’s all they had, feeding the people with the fish they caught.
I just want to make it clear that this is not something that I do as even a moral issue to enforce in others, it’s just a personal decision; what I do think that should be enforced is the humane treatment of all living creatures and, because of that, I believe that if your approach towards all life is humane and respectful, then that’ll apply for women or, you know, the people who are considered minorities even when we’re actually the majority. It’s all of that, just the completely illogical treatment of all of these things that is for the ill of everyone, and that’s why I think it’s very important to point out these things about women in all societies.
I think that we need a lot more male feminists; I think that my men… as we do in this show, as we do in this audience, we fight hand in hand for the good of everybody.
You’ve balanced out the world, basically made things work much more harmoniously in politics and society, global warming and in the bedroom; this is good for all of us, and that’s the point. In addition to that, even most boys, most humans in general, know at one point or another in their life what it feels like to be oppressed, discriminated against or to feel really shitty about oneself. All of these reasons are why we need, to one degree or another, sanctuary, a place of self-acceptance. That’s the bottom of what this represents, just told as a story in a really (hopefully) entertaining way, and having some fun at the end of all of this!
It’s all deadly serious, but if we just put this message out then people are going to get too depressed and bored to even stick with it… that’s why there are a lot of hot girls running around in corsets kissing each other, because we gotta lighten this up.
MB: Speaking that… how come we men are never kissed in the show!?
Emilie: It’s simply not what this is about. Sometimes it’s OK to have it be just about the girls and the ladylove, because it’s also showing that people have options. It’s celebrating… and that’s why there are so many gay boys and men in the audience, because they realize that it isn’t just for us; it’s symbolic, in a really fun way, of the fact that love in all forms is a beautiful thing and that all of it is completely equal and acceptable. Naturally, this is about girls because in the story girls were locked up together, this is all we had, there were no boys involved in this, which is why that’s what we represent on stage.
MB: Was it frustrating, or at least unexpected, to see that sometimes –and there’s even a YouTube video of this – guys start yelling “More girl kisses!”
Emilie: That’s something that doesn’t happen almost at all anymore. It happened quite a lot at the beginning of this, and all over the world, when it simply wasn’t understood, when people would come having no idea what this is about. It was simply a thing that we had to kind of just laugh away and accept that, of course, people are going to do. We’re very realistic; we don’t take ourselves too seriously and are incredibly offended by all of this.
[Melissa, the tour Manager, reminds us that we’re way past our allotted time of 25 minutes]
Emilie: I’m sorry, I’m the one that keeps talking, because I hate to stop. I would like to talk for hours and hours, just because this is very interesting and I love conversing with you.
Anyway, to end that one… we understand that sort of shallow titillation of what can go on on stage, and we have a lot of fun with that, knowing that that’s exactly what we’re doing, and also knowing that, to the people that matter, it’s a lot more special, beautiful and magical than that.
Honestly, it’s meant to be a beautiful and fun celebration of freedom on all forms.
SPECIAL THANKS to Melissa, the amazing and understanding Tour Manager who dealt with my requests and phone calls, and who did her best to make everything go as smoothly as possible.
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- In my opinion, Emilie is wrong here. Although some medications have serious side effects, psychiatric medications have evolved a lot in the last few years. Granted, every medication has possible complications, but that should not dissuade you (and I don’t think Emilie is saying that either since, after all, she’s taking medications) to seek medical help if you believe you do have a mental disorder. [↩]
- The quote comes from “A Poet’s Advice to Students”: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” [↩]
- Although it’s hard to find an original source, this quote is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man” A parallel between animal rights and women’s rights can be found in “Of Mice and Men – A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights” by Catharine A. MacKinnon, in the book “Animals Rights – Current Debates and New Directions” (Oxford University Press, 2004). [↩]