The first chat I had with pianist/singer/renaissance worman Jill Tracy opened my eyes and ears to a beautifully haunted world of music, stories and images, including her collaboration with filmmaker Bill Domonkos on “The Fine Art of Poisoning,” one of many excellent films in FEARnet's shorts collection; her intense upcoming musical project after being awarded a grant by Philadelphia's amazing Mütter Museum; and a series of “Musical Séances” (with violinist Paul Mercer) in which the audience's treasured objects and artefacts actually channel a spontaneous live performance. Those are just a few pages from Jill's body of work, and we'll be exploring more in the near future... but today I'd like to focus on a mixed-media holiday project that Jill describes as “Christmas for those who prefer the October chill.” The album Silver Smoke, Star of Night explores the roots of well-known Christmas carols in ways that will surprise and maybe even chill you... and her new signature perfumes by the same name combine with the music to create an exotic and mysterious holiday feast for the senses. In part two of our conversation with Jill, we find out how the music and scents came to life...
FEARnet: You describe Silver Smoke, Star of Night as an “accidental” album.
JILL: It really was, totally accidental.
What set that whole process in motion?
Well first of all, I don't really listen to Christmas music... it seems so many holiday songs are done in such a schmaltzy, mindless way. But I've always thought the original old carols are quite beautiful, and I hadn't sung or heard many of them in years. Last Christmas eve, I was with a dear friend who was going through rehab, and we were attempting to stay away from the parties and alcohol. She noticed the historic Swedenborgian church in San Francisco was doing a midnight candlelight sing-along of traditional Christmas carols, and we thought that would be really inspiring. We walked into this old magnificent structure, it was totally dark, they gave everyone little candles to hold and a songbook, and we began singing...I'd forgotten how exquisite some of these pieces are. Usually when you hear them on the radio or sing them in school, you only hear two verses or so, but there are often many more verses you seldom hear, some very gloomy and bleak, but also poignant and hopeful. There’s a verse from “We Three Kings” about being “sealed in the stone cold tomb,” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” refers things like “Satan's tyranny,” and so on.
It makes them sound like passages from a gothic novel.
Yes, it's such lavish dark imagery, and I couldn't get those images and melodies out of my head! I started researching and found more old carols that resonated with me. “Coventry Carol,” is an old lament from the 16th Century about the biblical tale of King Herod ordering male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. The lyrics represent a mother's grief for her doomed child. It reminds you how that was such a violent, turbulent time in history. It certainly was not Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph.
I was really surprised to find how dark those songs were in their original form.
It's true, and when I tweeted about these discoveries, there was this sudden onslaught of responses on Twitter saying “You should release an album of dark classic Christmas carols!” That's what ultimately planted the seed for this project, and at that point I realized how moving it would be. These are not songs to be sung, but tales to be told. This was the Christmas album I always wished existed, and I guess it was up to me to make it so.
I like how you chose different arrangements to suit the intimacy or the darkness of different songs, but there's an overall vintage feel to the record.
Yes, I wanted to capture that organic texture, and I worked with my long-time percussionist Randy Odell, who used authentic antique instruments like chimes and bells, bamboo, even old wooden toys. For the reverb sound on the piano, we sampled an abandoned stairwell at night. Some songs I'd planned as more elaborate, with violins and so on, like “What Child Is This?” But when I played through the first take of that one, I was so moved by it that you hear my voice break a little bit, and we knew that was the keeper. "What Child is This" is one of the most raw, powerful and proud moments I've ever captured on tape. "O Come O Come Emanuel" was really the impetus for the entire album. I heard this long slow build, mystical and hypnotic... then transforming into more of an odd jazz groove, but maintaining the sheer formal beauty of the work. I also heard this very different (from the classic version) vocal melody in my head. I also wanted to sing on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but it ended up sounding more tender as just a solo piano piece. I went against my original plans for a lot of these songs, and instead with what felt right in that moment... often the most heartfelt versions are the first takes. When you over-think things, you can get in your own way and lose the magic.
My favorite is “Carol of the Bells,” which has so many layers of metallic percussion... it's very hypnotic.
I'm so glad you like it, that one was challenging! After all, the central melody is kind of clinical and redundant, and we were thinking, “How many times do we play this melody? How do we make it progress, albeit fragilly into something more interesing?” Then my drummer had the idea of adding these layers of varying chimes, metals and found objects, so he just came in with all of this glorious stuff. I wasn't sure what he was going to do with it all, but we just started recording tracks of him emoting on all these different metal things, and when we started layering them together, you just hear this amazing texture, ambience, and tone that supports the piano melody and makes it come alive.
You've introduced two new perfumes that seem closely tied to the album. Did you intend that as a way of enhancing the experience?
Yes, exactly. Just like we create visuals to go with music, like album art and videos, I’ve always wanted to create fragrances as a conjuring companion. Scent is transportive, so much more powerful than we realize. The sense of smell is directly linked to the limbic system, the part of the brain where emotion and memory are centered... and like music, these senses are passive, indirect. Unlike touching a cold piece of steel for instance – everyone would have that same experience – music and scent are completely distinctive and private sensual interpretations. A perfume will even smell quite different on every skin. So it all began as perfume for myself, we experimented with several versions, and I became so addicted to these two fragrances. I worked with Emerson Hart of San Francisco's Nocturne Alchemy to create an essence that captures that ashy, smoky, not-too-sweet scent of burning frankincense, and we came upon this blend that just blew my mind. So when this album came out, I had the idea these two frankincense- and myrrh-based scents could be called “Silver Smoke” and “Star of Night” just like the title. In fact, I was wearing these scents while I was recording the album!
You also chose an amazing venue to introduce these scents to the public. Can you tell us more about this event at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers?
The Conservatory of Flowers has always been one of my favorite places... it's this beautiful white Victorian-style glass dome in the middle of Golden Gate Park. It's normally open only during the day, and when you're inside it feels like walking onto another planet. Last fall they were showing an exhibit called “Wicked Plants,” based on the book by Amy Stewart, which showcased all kinds of poisonous and deadly nightshades. I also discovered that Amy is a big fan of my music, so I approached them with the idea of doing an event at night, where I'd tell tales about the “dark side” of the plant kingdom, with a tour and a concert after hours. The event was a huge success. Since then, we are discussing more ideas, because it feels like a perfect creative home base for me. When the Christmas album came out with the perfumes, I decided to create an evening called “Fragrance, the Allure and Magical History of Perfumes,” with a tour of the night fragrant gardens, and full concert. An indulgement of the senses. People could learn things like what frankincense and myrrh look like in their natural state, how fragrances are made, and it would be the ideal environment to launch my perfumes and new holiday album.
Tell us more about this “Creepshow Christmas” event you've planned... it sounds like Halloween and Christmas all rolled into one big celebration.
“Creepshow Christmas” is taking place on December 8th at the Hypnodrome in San Francisco which is a theater that I helped found in 2004 that specializes in recreating old Grand Guignol horror plays. Every summer they offer a “Creepshow Camp” for kids ages 8 to 15, where they teach how to do horror makeup and stage effects, and they put together a play as their final project. I usually come in and sing songs with them, and one year we did a music video... and one time I came in did a lecture on ancient torture devices!
Oh man, where was all this stuff when I was growing up?
I know, I wish I'd had that experience as a kid! I rarely get to do an all-ages show, so I thought it would be fun to do something like Creepshow Camp, and I'd perform songs from the new album and show films like “The Fine Art of Poisoning.” We'd also invite people in the audience to share a favorite ghost tale and we'll provide a live improvised score! Hearing the music reacting to their story would help them tell it. And such a blast for us to create a live score on the spot.The Hypnodrome is also totally tricked out; they took painstaking efforts to ensure that your eyes will never adjust when the lights go out. They do a full-blackout spookshow - that's their signature - and there are specially rigged seats called “shock-boxes” that all have a distinctive theme, like an insane asylum or Hades. They're constructed so certain things will happen, from buzzers under the seats to people who hide and jump out to grab you!
That's awesome, it's just like the old William Castle movie gimmicks like The Tingler.
It's so much fun, and I would love to see more people discover this place. It’s one of those hidden gems here in San Francisco.
I'll definitely be looking into that... I think there's another whole story to be told there.
Oh yeah, it's such an amazing and fun space... a cross between a strange curiosity shop, underworld theater, and a chamber of horrors! No wonder I feel right at home...
[Editor's note - Jill Tracy's short film 'The Fine Art of Poisoning' is currently available on FEARnet]