Traveling ‘twixt blurred reality and dream-induced states, Fern Knight has been known to produce gothic and arcane lullabies with a well-balanced dosage of prog-rock undertones. The band’s compelling music explores the sounds and imagery of an older time, where quality, magic and mystery seemed to have a stronger presence than during this virtual and digital age of convenience and commodity. Speaking of, should you take a quick detour to Google the band, you may read that their music is for “Witches and Alchemists”. Perhaps the very thought of witches, alchemists, tarot cards, and that whole array of mysticism feels out of place with your current idea of reality. Aren’t those subjects for the books? Not with Fern Knight. The band isn’t necessarily working to be a reincarnation of bygone times, but they serve as practitioners of these past legends and lores. Through an in-depth interview with Margaret Ayre, the thoughtful force of Fern Knight, we found out more about what lures Fern Knight to pursuing and creating their ominous and somber melodies.
All Our Noise: Once, during a music lesson, my guitar teacher asked, “when you are playing music, are you receiving or transmitting it?” Out of curiosity, I must ask you the same question. You album is titled Castings, so therefore I feel like you are directing some sort of energy toward your listeners, but when you create your music, does it feel like it comes from you alone, or does it feel like you are channeling another force, receiving melodies and ideas almost involuntarily?
Margaret Ayre: There is a definite connection between the title Castings and how a lot of the songs that ended up on the record came into being. I was consulting my tarot deck fairly regularly during the year those songs were written. At the time we were living in Philly, and many of us were feeling a little lost as to what the future held. I found some solace and wisdom in my tarot spreads that I wanted to share, so I started cataloging the different archetypes used in divination in song form. Using allegory, I began working through some of my experiences, good and bad, and translating them into lyrics, which I then paired with music. The songs came quickly; usually I belabor every detail, but not for this batch. In that way it seemed like a force was channeling its way through to the cello or guitar, whichever instrument I was writing on, and served as a lovely catharsis at the same time.
I suppose I ask this in-depth mostly because I notice a unifying theme in your music, from lyrics to a certain tone, and it feels traditional and reminiscent. The music and the mood is unique in of itself, but I feel this notion that is was taught or learnt, the way stories are passed down through generations and modified by one’s own ideas and direction. There is an old, medieval vibe to your collection of songs.
Thanks, I am happy to hear the trad/medieval vibe is coming through clearly. I am influenced by medieval, renaissance and Baroque music, and I am learning how to play the viola da gamba since moving to D.C. in 2009. The next record will feature viol and harpsichord. I also enjoy traditional Celtic and Breton music (Chieftains, Alan Stivell) and Indian classical and Middle Eastern folk music (Khan brothers, Munir Bashir).
I gave “The Poisoner” a look and a listen. The lyric line regarding the past and future laying inside of stone walls particularly stood out to me. Why is there this issue of feeling contained? Where does the present lie? I also noticed a heavy use of visual imagery regarding containers … bottles, books, goblets … Why is there this return to this place of stone, where is seems birth and death took place and will take form? Where is the middle part, the present, the life?
In “The Poisoner”, rather than an issue of being contained within stone walls or vessels, it’s more that the protagonist feels shut out, and she is trying to get in (or forwards, or backwards). In the video, the present is portrayed by the vivid outdoor shots — the outer world. The inner world is shown during the choruses (the dark indoor scenes). The outer world also represents life, and the inner world death. As for a lot of the props being containers — stone walls, an egg, a bottle of belladonna, a poisoned goblet, her diary — they were needed to tell the story, but it is interesting that there are so many vessels for containment. You could say she is trying to understand what lies within them all.
After giving “Loch na Fooey” a listen I fell in love with the lyric “counting sheep is such a dream”. What are your thoughts on lullabies, dreams, the hypnagogic state in between sleep and dream?
That is nice that you caught the lullaby vibe and imagery in “Loch Na Fooey”. It was written in a dream-like place of the same name in Ireland, and I was in the dream-like state that is falling in love. I think that music can propel both the listener and the musician to another place or time or altered state. We try to take the listener on a journey with us on our albums or in a live setting. I have written songs or melodies in dreams, but I have a hard time remembering them once I’ve woken up. From our S/T album, the opening track “Bemused” has a line: “Neither sleeping, neither waking, the moon is pulling ever pushing me”. And on 2006′s M4W&A there’s the closer called “Lullaby” — so I do like to write about that place between waking and sleeping, and sometimes the music I write fits that mood. On the latest record Castings I think there’s less of a droney lullaby feel and more lucidity and edginess.
Do you feel like your songs resemble dreams, stories, or both? Are they fictional or do they spout from some form of truth? They are very visual, almost like illustrations! Are there any stories and legends that inspire you?
I am inspired by Gothic literature like H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, Poe, John Crowley’s “Little, Big” and the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. The video for “The Poisoner” was inspired in part by the fantasy-horror short story “The White People” written in the 1890s by Welsh writer Arthur Machen. The Rider-Waite tarot deck illustrations were hugely inspirational for the lyrics on Castings.
Back to “The Poisoner”. I noticed that Derek Moench also has created visual stories for Espers and Fursaxa. Do you feel a connection at all with these musicians, as you all travel in the same vein?
There is a connection musically — I am the cellist you hear on Espers I, and I toured as their cellist in 2002-03, before Helena Espvall came on board, and have subbed for her for some live shows in years hence. We are all old pals — some of Espers played on my 2006 album Music For Witches and Alchemists, and Tara Burke (Fursaxa), some of Fern Knight and some of Espers came together with harpist Mary Lattimore to form the 10-piece ensemble The Valerie Project in 2007-08 (Drag City). We wrote a new soundtrack for the Czech New Wave film “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders”.
King Crimson is one of my favorite bands. Any reason for the “Epitaph” cover? Any particular connection to that song?
Jim and I really wanted to do a cover of a King Crimson song, to give a nod to our proggy progenitors … and we narrowed it down to “Epitaph.” We just play it pretty straight and in each of our own playing styles, and it seemed to suit our live set well. Bill at VHF Records requested that we record it and put it on our next album, so that is how it ended up on Castings. I think it sits well with the other songs, musically and lyrically.
There’s a connection to the past in your music, to tangible things. How does living in this virtual, technological age of progression effect you? Do you accept it? Does it take a toll on what you feel is a spiritual essence of your surroundings?
There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t ask myself, why am I sitting in front of this computer? My husband and I dream of a day when we’re not enslaved by technology. It is a means to an end, so I try to use it wisely and as sparingly as possible.
Fern Knight plays Comet on Saturday, Feb. 5, with Martin Bisi and The Plums.