“I just do my damndest,” Hether Fortune tells me over the phone. For Fortune, her “damndest” includes projects in all corners of the music industry; along with her contributions to her band, Wax Idols, Fortune recently produced a record for SACREN and started Etruscan Gold Records. And Fortune’s current work with Wax Idols is not light: the band is set to reissue their third record (“American Tragic”) this week, are in the midst of writing songs for upcoming album Happy Ending, and are embarking on a month-long tour.
Happy Ending––for which the first single, “Everybody Gets What They Want”, has already been released––is set to be a meditation on death, dissociative-consciousness, and grieving. Writing songs from the perspectives of dead and grieving persons, as well as from bodiless psyches, on Happy Ending Fortune grapples with the murky possibilities of de-personhood. “It’s a weird space to be in,” she tells me, “because what started as a concept, [now] kind of feels like reality.”
In advance of their headlining performance at Starline Social Club on March 8th, I chatted with Fortune about the new album, her artistic process, and body theory. Along with kicking off their Spring tour, Wax Idols’ show on Wednesday will mark the beginning of Starline’s “Local Series,” an effort by the venue to, as they put it, “showcase what [they] think are some of the best, lesser known musical acts that Oakland and the Bay have to offer.” The series also attempts to increase accessibility by offering all shows for $5 each, breaking down at least one economic barrier for their audience.
On Wednesday, Wax Idols will be supported by Disappearing People and Weed Alien. The show promises a celebration of local talent, creative respite, and––perhaps!––a taste of Wax Idols' work to come.
The Bay Bridged: Do you feel like your writing process has changed since you started writing music?
Hether Fortune: It has changed I’m sure, because [...] I think if you’re an artist the way that you create tends to grow with you. When I was younger I was a lot more reactionary and almost all of my songs were specifically written about something that had just happened.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve spent more time thinking things through before I react, and exploring how I feel before making a concrete, definitive statement. I think [my songwriting process] is a bit more patient now. I’m writing about different things, things that aren’t so much about me.
TBB: How are you approaching writing narrative and characters now?
HF: It’s the same way I’ve approached everything else. It’s by trying to put myself in the shoes of a fictional character and just imagining how it feels. On this new record, every song is written from the perspective of either somebody who has died and is experiencing consciousness without being attached to a body, or from the perspective of somebody who is grieving someone. There are [also] songs that are just literally describing weightlessness. That’s just the nerd in me. I read a lot, I always have––I’m just trying my best to push the boundaries of my imagination.
Also, it doesn’t feel terribly imaginary these days. It’s not really that hard to write about experiencing death or grieving at the moment. It still comes back to emotional honesty: to be real.
TBB: It’s funny that you called yourself a nerd, because I am also totally a nerd about body theory.
HF: One of my favorite things––something that’s been going through my head every day for the past three months––is something that a friend, Cash Askew, used to say before she passed. She used to say this all the time, and it was hilarious; she would say “my body isn’t a temple, it’s a tube.”
As a trans girl and gender-fluid person, she had a lot of theories about the actual use of the body, and how it was just a meat sack. It’s something we always used to joke about together, because it was something we found common ground on. I’ve never felt comfortable in my body––for different reasons––and she used to say stuff like that all the time. It’s just been going through my head over and over because so much of this record is about imagining––fantasizing––about what it might be like to not have a body. That’s something I’ve nerded about forever also. Like what if I could just be a floating orb?
TBB: I always say, what if I was an emotional mist?
HF: [Laughs] That’s good.
TBB: Something that I’m always interested in when musicians talk about body dysphoria or dissociation is how you synthesize not understanding why you have a body and the physical reality of being onstage. Is that something you have a hard time meshing?
HF: Not anymore, but I used to, absolutely. When I was a teenager, I never in a million years thought I was going to be a performer. I just never imagined that I would ever be in a position [to be] onstage with an instrument in front of people, so I never thought about it and [instead] focused on my instruments as a vessel for creation, to make sounds. I didn’t ever think about how I looked while I was holding them, or playing them. Even when I started performing I didn’t think about it––I just did it.
Then over time, once more people were there, and I started realizing that there was all this tension being focused on how I looked while I was playing, I went into this whole phase where I got really confrontational about my body. And that was a way that I was able to deal with that newfound scrutiny and attention being placed on my appearance. Now, I’m just chilling. When I’m onstage, I don’t think about how I look, at all. It’s just a means to an end. I’m there to perform, to give an experience to people that you can’t get anywhere else.
There’s a certain thing that happens when you watch music being performed in front of you that is a one-time experience––you’ll never have it again. I grew up cherishing those spaces and being at shows where I could just close my eyes and be enveloped in the sounds and in the moment. So when I’m onstage now, that’s what it’s about: Everything else is just secondary for me.
TBB: Something you said earlier really resonated with me, which was that it’s not that hard to think about death or grieving at this moment. I noticed that writers talking about your upcoming album [have been] labeling it as a concept album. Do you agree with that?
HF: At first it was sort of this weird concept album. When I thought of it, we were on tour, and I was with the band and it just popped into my head: ‘Happy Ending’, like, what if I was a ghost? What if I had a consciousness and no body, and I’m going around experiencing these things, and all the songs were about that––wouldn’t that be crazy? Everyone really liked it, so at first it was this weird way to explore this kind of weird concept: Consciousness without being attached to a body. Is that even possible? Who could know?
So it did start as a concept, but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t feel conceptual lately. Because of losing Cash, and because of so many things going on, reality feels really skewed right now. Un-reality is a common theme for all of us now, you know, because of the political climate [...] everything feels crazy. And on top of it, it doesn’t feel real that [Cash] is gone. It feels like she’s here, everyday. So I wonder, you know, what if she is? What if she is here? What if all these ideas I’m having are her communicating with me in some weird, body-free way? I’m sure that’s not really the case, but I don’t know––who knows?
TBB: How do you strategically––both sonically and lyrically––produce work that translates to the audience? Do you think about ways to evoke what you are describing right now within your lyrics?
HF: In a way, yes, because I think that all forms of art are really about trying to take a feeling or an idea and make it tangible. It’s trying to manifest something that previously only existed in your body or your head into something that is able to be experienced and understood by others.
We [Wax Idols] talk about those things all the time. We’ll be working on a song, and I’ll say to Peter [Lighting], you know, this song is about weightlessness. If you could create a sound on your guitar that sounded like weightlessness, what would it be? And then he’ll do that. With writing, lyrics are essentially a form of poetry, and poetry is all about filtering. You take all the words and ways to describe something, and then filter it down to its barest bones––to its core. What cuts to the chase? What gets the idea there in the most succinct and effective way?
TBB: I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you’re written about, there is often a focus on the personal––on what is and is not biographical in your music. This upcoming album started as a concept, but it has become very personal. Is that something you want to share with audiences and journalists?
HF: It’s something that we’re going to keep close to us. There was a lot of exploitation around [The Ghostship Fire] that was beyond anyone’s control and was just nasty. It was really tacky. That doesn’t feel like the way to honor our people that we lost. The way to honor them is to do what we’re doing, which is creating. That’s enough.
Anything else that the audience gets from listening to the album, then that’s for them to experience and have to themselves. I hope that anyone who has ever gone through anything like this perhaps will get that kind of feeling, and hopefully it will help them in some way. But I’m certainly not going to be going around talking about [my] experience at shows. It’s hard enough to talk about it now, honestly.
TBB: How do you see your position in the Bay Area music community, and how do you see that community evolving?
HF: I have no idea, to be honest. I’ve never had a good grasp on my position anywhere, in any situation. I don’t know what effect or impact I’ve had, or not had––I honestly don’t care. All I care about is trying to support people that I believe in, and give people a place to go where they can [...] feel good about themselves, and feel something that empowers them, or just hear something that they like to listen to.
That’s what I love more than anything else in the world: music. Going to see shows saved my life when I was a kid. In terms of community, that’s all I care about. If there are people who care about what we’re doing, and it would make them feel good to hear us play, then we want to make it possible and easy for them to see us. And if there are other bands and other artists who need a helping hand [...] we’re happy to have them along. Bands always did that for us when we were starting out, and that’s the way it goes.
I saw a quote recently that said “as soon as you realize you have power, disperse it immediately.” So if we do have any power, we are always trying to get rid of it. Power makes me feel uncomfortable. The word “community” makes me feel uncomfortable too, honestly. I feel like it gets used a lot. I feel like people go around talking about how they’re “champions for their community” who are in it for power. For the position, or to be like, scene king or queen. I’ve never been interested in that shit. None of us are.
TBB: What in your music life are you doing right now that you don’t think you could have done previously in your career?
HF: Letting go of control. That’s something that I never even thought would ever happen. I never thought that I would meet the right group of people where I would trust them. I don’t want this to sound at all dismissive of any previous band-mates, because I love and am close with everybody who has ever been in the band over the years. They all brought something invaluable to the table.
But I’ve always had a hard time finding people to keep up with me. Now, I don’t have that problem anymore. We’re all equals. They all think as quickly as I do, move as quickly as I do, can write parts, and act fast––it’s been really liberating and really surprising.
TBB: Out of writing, producing, writing music, performing, being on a label, etc., where do you feel most comfortable?
HF: In the studio. Being in the role of a producer is the most natural for me. I worked on an acoustic record for my friend [SACREN] last year and it was the most fulfilling experience I’ve ever had in my life. I felt so useful, and so valuable, and it wasn’t about me, it was about serving the music. All of my skills in engineering, sound, composing, melody, harmonies, mixing...every weird nerd thing that I’ve ever successfully taught myself was useful. In that environment, I felt like, wow––this is the culmination of everything that I’m good at. It was so exhilarating. I loved it. You can make anything happen––it’s like [being a] kid in a candy store.
A very close second for me would be being on stage. When I’m performing I just kind of disappear into music, and that’s the best feeling in the world.
TBB: Could you see yourself in the future just producing?
HF: Totally. I feel like eventually I’ll be too old to be hopping around onstage. I doubt we’ll be like, The Rolling Stones, so I could totally see that. Monte [Vallier], who I’ve done all the records that I mentioned earlier with, is like my mentor, and I pretty much want to be just like him when I grow up [laughs].
He was in several pretty successful killer bands, and toured the world, and once that wound down and he didn’t want to keep pursuing that, he settled into a role as a producer and as an engineer full time, and he is so happy. He’s constantly doing what he loves, and it’s really inspiring. I could only hope to have a life that good.
TBB: What stage are you in with ‘Happy Ending’ right now?
HF: When we started it last year, we had so many demos and songs. Then we hit a wall because we were all [...] really struggling for a while. We stopped working on it, but now we’ve been exploding with a whole bunch of new songs. When we get back from tour, we’re going to go to the studio for like ten days. Maybe it will be done when we get out, and maybe not. We'll see what happens.
Wax Idols, Disappearing People, Weed Alien
Starline Social Club
March 8th 2017