Of Musical Conjurings: An Interview with Meredith Yayanos

The Lady of the Manners has a special treat for you Snarklings! In December 2012, a gorgeously unsettling musical work was released: A Blessed Unrest, by The Parlour Trick. A collaboration between Meredith Yayanos and Dan Cantrell, is an album perfect for spirits looking for a house to haunt, or to soothe a madwoman in an attic. It quickly became one of the Lady of the Manners’ favorite musical works, and is a perfect soundtrack for writing.

A Blessed Unrest cover photo by Ellen Rogers

And now, presented to you after assorted adventures and hijinks with email and schedules: the Gothic Charm School interview with Meredith Yayanos!

What was the catalyst to create Parlour Trick and A Blessed Unrest?

I came up with the name and concept of The Parlour Trick in 2005. I’d known since my teens that I wanted to make some sort of classically-tinged dark ambient record with elaborate packaging and backstory”¦ but I never carved out the time to work towards that goal. I managed to record a handful of demos and scribble down scraps of notation here and there, that was it. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I worked primarily as a hired player in NYC, doing studio sessions and gigging with a bunch of previously established bands. Later, when I moved back to California, I kept that up, but scaled it back somewhat to focus on co-running Coilhouse Magazine & Blog. That entire time I was doing my best to stifle any and all nagging urges to Do My Own Thingâ„¢. I lacked the confidence. Honestly, I still do. It’s always been easy for me to let my own concepts stay shelved and contribute to other people’s visions. But at some point in the late 00s, while visiting with Dan Cantrell in Oakland, I somehow worked up the courage to pitch my spooky music to him and asked him to become part of The Parlour Trick. Dan played me this Satie-inspired piano piece he’d composed. It made all the tiny hairs on my arms and neck stand up. I came up with the violin part on the spot, as well as the song’s title: “Half Sick of Shadows”, and shyly showed shared some of my own sketches. Dan was encouraging and supportive, so after I moved to New Zealand, he and I kept brainstorming via Skype and email. Then I’d come back to town every ten months or so to record a few songs. That’s how A Blessed Unrest got made, sporadically, over the course of many years, while both he and I had a whole lot of other stuff going on.

The Parlour Trick: “Half Sick of Shadows” (Starring Rachel Brice) from Theremina on Vimeo.

How did your interests in Spiritualism, 19th century mourning rituals, and the “monstrous feminine” coalesce into needing a musical expression?

Victoriana is fascinating to me — their fear of sex, their preoccupation with death and mourning. Especially all of the munted, manipulative rituals and superstitions surrounding post-civil war Spiritualism! Something very poignant about the level of effort that went into creating these elaborate theatrical gaffs that let people speak to their dead loved ones. Disturbing and sad, too. I’m a sucker for Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics as well, and I’ve been collecting 19th Century ephemera since I was a kid, winding things up and watching them twitch, messing around with outmoded technologies, screaming down the throats of old phonograph horns.

The Mill At Calder’s End – Official Teaser HD from Kevin McTurk on Vimeo.

(Teaser trailer for Kevin McTurk’s puppet film The Mill At Calder’s End, featuring a track by The Parlour Trick called “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Yayanos contributed violin and vocal work to the score.)

I have a lifelong attraction to narratives that are feminine and unapologetically confrontational. A Blessed Unrest definitely plays off that madwoman trope. Concepts of the monstrous feminine tend to dovetail nicely with that. The 1800s spawned an especially poetic strain of Monstrous Femininity. Multiple generations of madwomen locked up in the attics.

For most of recorded history, women have been called mentally ill, or straight-up demonized, merely for rejecting societal norms. Female rage, female dissent, female sexuality”¦ those are all cultural monstermakers. Let’s be honest. Most women still aren’t given enough room to voice educated, dissenting opinions –let alone express our full emotional, intellectual, or sexual range– without encountering a lot of oppressive pushback.

A Blessed Unrest turned into an unexpectedly emotional exorcism for me! It’s basically a haunted house record with a very distraught ghost rattling around inside of it. The same ghost that’s been rattling around inside of me for a long, long time. Hopefully that comes across, somewhat in spite of it being almost entirely non-verbal? I dunno.

Photo of Meredith Yayanos & Dan Cantrell by Audrey Penven

How did you and Dan Cantrell meet?

Heeee. Dan and I met in a park at a padded weaponry game when were fifteen years old, and we’ve been music collaborators for nearly as long. I’ve honestly lost track of how many wonderful projects of his I’ve sat in on over the past decades. He’s a prolific and incredibly versatile artist. I highly recommend his recent solo album, Orphaned Anthems. Gorgeously cinematic, and very quintessentially Dan.

A Blessed Unrest, for me, occupies the same sort of idea space as the “musical seances” that musicians Jill Tracy and Paul Mercer create. Have you heard of those? Would that sort of performance be enticing to you? Who would you want to perform with if you were able to participate in such a thing?

Oh, yes! And yes, absolutely. Wow, what an honor to be compared to those two. Jill’s a dear friend and we’ve performed together quite a bit. I did one of her seance nights at the Edwardian Ball earlier this year. Last June, the two of us teamed up with legendary thereminist Armen Ra to host an evening of unearthly music at DNA Lounge. It was delightful. I first saw/heard Paul Mercer back in 1995 at the Pyramid club in NYC, performing with the Changelings, and that was hugely inspired. More recently, I picked up his solo violin/viola record, Ghosts. It’s beautiful.
As far as folks I’d want to perform with if I were able to go the full-on seance route . . . I think it could be amazing to do something multi-disciplinary. Some kind of salon / bazaar event involving music, dance, visual art, fashion, a photo booth, tarot card-readings, magic tricks, tea service, and some readings of Victorian feminist lit. Off the top of my head, the folks I’d love to work on something like that with include: Shamika Baker, Victoria Victrola, Wren Britton, Paul Komoda, Selene Ahnese, Mildred Von, Angelo Moore, Ellen Rogers, Nadya Lev, Snake Church, Bloodmilk, Star St. Germain, Kambriel, Travis Louie, Laurie Penny, Angeliska Polacheck, Eden Gallanter, and the Vau de Vire Society. Hell, if all of those folks got together without me and did something, that’d be swell, too. I don’t care, I just want to hang out and eat buttered scones!

From my corner of the internet, it seems that there’s been a growing resurgence of interest in Spiritualism, hauntings, mourning rituals, and more classically “dark” or “morbid” ideas. Have you noticed the same sorts of themes and links? What do you think is driving this upswing?

I have! I think it’s fabulous. Pastel goth! Witch house! These kids today. Buttsrsly, I’m in love with so much of the music emerging from current post-gothic, post-cyberpunk, fairy tale sensibilities: Austra, Chelsea Wolfe, Burial, Light Asylum, Zola Jesus, iamamiwhoami, GR” LLGR” LL, Harouki Zombi, Demdike Stare. So much exciting, creepy creativity happening. No idea what’s driving that upswing. Maybe it’s that we have free, unlimited access to a lot of high res scans of archaic imagery and literature that weren’t as easy to track down, before? (I had to dig deep for my Manly P. Hall and Dover books.)

Or maybe we’re trying to create a more tangible sense of authenticity in the Internet age by rubbing a bit o’ graveyard dirt into the atemporality? I have no idea. I’m still getting used to the sight of posh fifteen year olds wearing Goetic Seal of Solomon tank tops with their galactic Blackmilk leggings and Jeffrey Campbell plats to Starbucks. It’s delightfully weird to me, how all of these signifiers of archaic ritual from a wide variety traditions are being remixed and injected into art and discourse in the digital age. A revival of ghosts in pixelated aether.

Were there any interesting or unsettling moments while recording the material for A Blessed Unrest?

Dan and I managed to spook the hell out of ourselves without any help from the spirit world! For instance, we were using wax cylinder technology to build layers of ambiance out of the voices of long-dead musicians. That could get very unsettling. You know how super old recordings often sound frantic, kind of shouty? It’s because they were all yelling into the recording horn to make sure it registered in the wax, and rushing to make sure they’d fit their entire song onto a two-minute cylinder. Turns out that when you sample and layer urgent century-old voices, it gets creepy. And also we recorded ourselves onto this ancient Edison machine. And, of course, I screamed during one take. Hearing that scream played back for the first time was uncanny. It only takes a few minutes for the wax to harden, but the resulting sound feels a hundred years old”” it’s as though the notes have had to sluice their way through an ocean of years. By the time the music finally reaches the listener, it’s awash with hisses, pops, clicks and whispers. It’s a machine that turns a warm, breathing human voice into a ghost in less than ten minutes.

Photo by Audrey Penven

The Parlour Trick site says that a music video for The Lady of the House of Love is in preproduction. (Whooo, Angela Carter reference! That’s one of my favorite stories by her.) Are there any details you can reveal about the idea for the video?

One of my faves as well! “She herself is a haunted house.” That entire Burning Your Boats collection is incredible. I can tell you there’ll be some swooping aerial drone footage of the eldritch houseboat community I crash-landed in upon my return to the States after living abroad for several years. And some scenes in the Marin Headlands, where I’ve been spending a lot of time this past year. It’s all coming together extreeeeeemely slowly, while I continue to recalibrate. I have no idea when it will be finished, but I do intend to finish it.

Other friends of mine who are musicians, writers, and artists are all coping with the juggling act required to support themselves and keep moving: how do you balance the demands of “real life” with your creative drive and impulses?

Haha! “IS THIS REAL LIFE?” Oh, god, I don’t know. I’m still flailing. Please let me know if you find someone who’s got it all figured out? Real life, for me, hasn’t been terribly real-feeling for a while now. From the time I launched the Kickstarter for The Parlour Trick album up through now, I’ve been in a weirdly protracted transitional space. These days I’m hauling ass trying to make a stable life for myself in San Francisco, building my savings back up, doing a combination of film scoring, session work, band management, sporadic pet/house sitting gigs, and (don’t laugh!) a bit of ghostwriting to pay the bills. All of which is great, but of course I’m also itching to make more deeply personal creative stuff. If only that would pay the bills! If only I wasn’t still plagued with shyness and doubts about my own work. I will say this: I would be so lost without the love and support of true friends and loyal family. Those bonds mean everything. Everyone’s different, but I’d say that if you’re not a complete hermit, make sure to stay connected to your kin. Prioritize people who treat you with respect and who nurture and replenish you, and be sure to do the same for them as much as possible. Amazing art”¦ scratch that, amazing life happens when you prioritize relationships like those, and do not take them for granted.

Will there be more music from Parlour Trick?

Mmmmaaaybe? I hope so. The response to this material has been more positive and more far-flung than I’d expected, especially given that it was this self-produced, self-managed Kickstarter project with zero official PR. (Mad love to all of my friends and colleagues who gave the record an enormous boost! I blame them entirely.) There are some unreleased tracks that didn’t make it onto A Blessed Unrest: these long, murky, atmospheric pieces that didn’t really work, thematically, with the haunted house concept. Hopefully that stuff will eventually see the light of day. But it’s been several years now since we finished recording A Blessed Unrest. Dan has long since moved on to other projects. The Parlour Trick schema and moniker belong to me, so any new material recorded under that name will be with other collaborators, and therefore quite different from A Blessed Unrest.

What’s your favorite little indulgence to lift your spirits?

A spicy dirty chai and a snickerdoodle and cloud busting on the roof with good tunes in my headphones.

Portrait by Bethalynne Bajema

Thank you, Meredith, for taking the time to do this interview! I hope that someday we’ll be in the same place long enough to sit down, share a pot of tea, and do some plotting!

Purchase The Parlour Trick’s A Blessed Unrest on Bandcamp!

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1 Response to Of Musical Conjurings: An Interview with Meredith Yayanos

  1. Hannah-Rose says:

    ‘Half-Sick of Shadows’ by the Parlour Trick is just the right mix of haunting and elegant.

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