Interview with Sarah Kirkland Snider transcript

Some of you may remember that interview I did with Sarah Kirkland Snider on Twitter several months ago when Penelope first came out. I made it into a video, which I’m sure you’ve seen floating around, but I’ve had some requests recently for written transcript. Well, I managed to steal a few minutes while I was in Minneapolis for String Theory last week, so here’s that transcript y’all asked for. You can, of course, skip straight to the video at the bottom if you like.

In an earlier version of this post, I had written that Penelope would be performed at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. That performance has since been canceled. Sorry about that. The Southern is in the midst of some serious financial difficulties. Please consider a donation. Also, some of the information in this interview is now obsolete. For instance, you can no longer stream the first track from Penelope on NPR. However, you can stream the whole thing on Bandcamp and on the New Amsterdam website.

[begin interview]

The Indie Handbook: We’re going on 6:00, so I suppose it’s time to get this interview going, if you’re ready and assuming your battery holds out.

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Ready. Battery juicing.

TIH: Brilliant. I’ll be listening to Penelope as we do this, just for continuity’s sake. So, people can stream this now on NPR.

SKS: Yes, well, they can stream the first track.

TIH: Well, that’s a start at least. The official release date is a few weeks away.

SKS: Right. October 26.

TIH: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did Penelope get started? It wasn’t always a standalone song cycle, as I recall.

SKS: Right. It started as a musical theater piece with playwright Ellen McLaughlin. Then I reconceived it as a song cycle for Shara.

TIH: Yeah. She’s the one who first told me about it last June or so. How did she come to be involved?

SKS: I couldn’t imagine anyone singing it but her. So I got my people to call her people and she very awesomely said yes.

TIH: She certainly sounded enthusiastic when she mentioned it in our interview. But how do you go about composing for someone like Shara Worden? She has such a unique instrument—such a wide range of colors.

SKS: Exactly. It was thrilling knowing I could do so many things and she would know exactly what to do with them.

TIH: Well, I think that’s exactly what you’ve done here—not so much that you’ve touched on a varying number of musical styles, but images. I fell like it’s a very visual piece of music—almost tactile, even. A sort of multi-sensory experience. I really hope that was intentional and that I’m not just crazy.

SKS: That’s a great compliment to me. I definitely think in terms of mood, image, feeling—never style.

TIH: I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Circe and the Hanged Man’, for instance, and that sort of laid back groove it has through the first half. I am particularly fond of the way you’ve set the word ‘luxuriating’. It’s like it takes on a whole new dimension.

SKS: Cool. I think Shara deserves a lot of credit for that. She has such amazing timing and innuendo—very sensual singing.

TIH: She certainly does. So, obviously there is a story element here. Did you give any consideration to the Odyssey itself when writing music for a story that parallels it so closely?

SKS: I did, absolutely, though Ellen’s story loomed perhaps a bit larger. Her inventive and idiosyncratic takes on the Odyssey characters really inspired me. They were so specific and complex and relatable.

TIH: I really do love Ellen’s text. I think it highlights elements of the Odyssey that are not necessarily readily apparent, elevating it from a simple hero story to something far more human, not to mention giving Penelope some long-overdue recognition.

SKS: Why, yes. Absolutely.

TIH: Let’s talk about style for a bit. Most of our readers are already familiar with My Brightest Diamond and this is similar, in a way, particularly in the sense that it straddles the border between pop and classical. There’s a lot of talk about “alt-classical” and pop vs. classical these days. What do you think of that whole issue?

SKS: Oh boy! The $1 million question. I think it’s awesome that so many people are bringing their influences together in organic and convincing ways. We often say at New Amsterdam that every person is their own genre: Dreamland. I think the important thing is just to strive for an honest and successful musical statement and not worry about style. I’m conscious of it—obsessively so—but more as an after-the-fact reflection on whatever idea I just had. The main thing is to let those ideas happen.

TIH: I think that ideal shows in the number of great releases New Amsterdam has put out this year. So, you’ve had time to reflect. What influences do you see in Penelope?

SKS: Oh, to give away my sources! Kidding. [There are] so many. I think the biggest here were Shara, David Lang, St. Vincent, Arvo Pärt, Bartók, Neutral Milk Hotel, Chopin, Wilco, Schubert, Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Debussy—I could go on and on, actually.

TIH: A great list. I could have sworn I heard some Phillip Glass in there as well.

SKS: Of course! Philip Glass is so deep in my DNA that I forget about him. For me, he was one of the first living composers who seemed to offer something relatable and relevant to my life experience.

TIH: It’s Satyagraha that I feel I hear specifically, especially in “The Lotus Eaters” for instance. Though that could just be because that’s the bit of Glass that’s so deeply embedded itself in my subconscious.

SKS: Interesting. Egad! I actually don’t know that piece, but I do think of some of the emotional terrain in Glass generally as influential for me. But so often, what underlies an influence it’s an ineffable emotional quality rather than a specific technique or gesture.

TIH: Did you have a specific, overarching structure in mind for the song cycle as a whole?

SKS: Yes, the song cycle follows the narrative of the play, though I added a new song to serve as the kind of emotional and narrative apotheosis of the story (“Baby Teeth”). In the play, the apotheosis is arrived at via spoken text.

TIH: That’s interesting, because it really does feel like the whole set kind of hangs on that song and the idea of being known.

SKS: I am impressed by your close listen. That’s what I was going for. And yes, being known—such a complicated concept here, because there is the sense that he wants to know himself and others again but he cannot get past his “guilt” and his deeds—the things he is known for by God.

TIH: I feel like the narrative itself reflects, in a sense, that philosophy you mentioned before, the very idea of probing the past and the psyche to find that sort of ineffable self that exists buried underneath all the extraneous psychological noise.

SKS: Do you mean compositional philosophy? Interesting. Yes, I think a parallel exists. It’s definitely about letting go of self-judgments and extraneous noise and trying to find something hidden below the surface.

TIH: That’s essentially what I’m getting at. Maybe not that it was a conscious decision, but that it’s a sort of natural parallel.

SKS: Absolutely. I imagine Odysseus’ task was a bit more anguish than mine, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

TIH: At this point, I’d love to explore the finer Existentialist points of this in light of The Sickness Unto Death, but I’ll spare you and let you go. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you. Congratulations on such a great piece. The album is just beautiful and I think people will love it. I wish you further success with New Amsterdam, as well. You’ve put out so much great music this year, and I think I speak for many others when I say you should release Penelope on vinyl.

SKS: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, too. That really means a lot. NewAm is such a labor of love. And I love the vinyl suggestion. We are thinking about it. By the way, The Sickness Unto Death was my favorite book all through college. Anytime you want to plumb its depths over Twitter, I’m you man.

TIH: That’s brilliant! The next time we do one of these, we’ll make it Kierkegaard-centric. Cheers!


Penelope: A Labor of Love

…I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence
Oed’ und leer das meer.

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land


Artwork by DM Stith

Among the Tarot deck, a man hangs by his feet from a living tree. He is not dead, but entranced—poised in perfect self suspension—having lost sight of the world and his place in it, but on the verge of a great awakening. Throughout history, the hanged man has been associated with figures spanning many mythological traditions, but in Sarah Kirkland Snider‘s Penelope (namely in the texts by playwright Ellen McLaughlin), he is called Odysseus, returned home from an unnamed war with no recollection of himself or the life he had.

By all expectations, a song cycle derived from a hero story like Homer’s Odyssey ought to be reasonably straightforward. But Penelope (New Amsterdam Records) is more than just a hero story. Our Odysseus is not simply meandering home following a successful campaign against the Trojans. He is a stranger returned home from half a lifetime spent in an unnamed war. He has left himself and his memories on the battlefield. He is Odysseus not by nature, but because he is no one. And it has fallen to Penelope to lead him back to the man he was and rediscover that ineffable self lost in half a lifetime at war.

And there to guide us through a sea of undulating strings and a landscape littered with shards of Glass and the ghosts of myriad musical touchstones are Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Signal under the direction of Brad Lubman. From the very opening of “The Stranger With the Face of a Man I Loved”, waves of strings lap upon the shore below as the return of her husband forces Penelope to recall the good along with bad (In this house / Where the best of our times / I try to remember / And the rest of the time / I try to forget) until coming to the conclusion in “This Is What You’re Like”—a track that would be equally at home on a My Brightest Diamond record as it is here—that I’d give a lot to hear him / Tell me lies like that again. Settling once and for all her resolve to bring him back over hints of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt in “Nausicaa”:

You look so lost, Stranger. / But you’re not lost / ‘Cause I’ve just found you, Penelope sings. Just take my hand, Stranger. /…And I will lead you home.

Our Odysseus never speaks but through his Penelope, his first utterance dangling among the trip hop imagery of “Circe and the Hanged Man”: a metaphor made all the more sensual by Shara Worden’s innate sense of innuendo (before Penelope, I never realized the word “luxuriating” tastes like chocolate covered strawberries). As Penelope continues to read to her husband, bits of his past emerge and retreat into the fog of his psyche until it all comes to a head in “Baby Teeth, Bones, and Bullets”, when Odysseus is made to gaze upon himself through the window of Penelope’s stories. For Odysseus, the trauma of being known—the sight of himself as he is—is overwhelming. Save me from you, we hear him say (through Penelope). Sweep me some place you can’t see / (Hide me some place) / I am known here. And with that, the Hanged Man Odysseus’ eyes are opened onto a vision of himself.

A.E. Waite, designer of the Rider-Waite tarot deck, wrote of The Hanged Man: “He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded [sic] in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection”. While for Penelope’s Odysseus the truth of his past and journey home haunts him, the journey through Penelope—achingly stark, sparse, swaying, and soaring—begs repeated listening with an attentive ear. The way hints of Radiohead and David Lang materialize and mingle with St. Vincent and Chopin only to be reabsorbed into an aural landscape that is uniquely—ineffably—the voice of Sarah Kirkland Snider, results in what is easily the most beautiful album of the year. And that, my friends, is a great awakening.

Listen to Penelope on the New Amsterdam website and on Bandcamp.

Sarah Kirkland Snider, “This Is What You’re Like” mp3

Watch my twinterview with Sarah Kirkland Snider below.