INTERVIEW: Penance Stare | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Penance Stare, the solo project of Esmé Louise Newman (previously of acts including Etai Keshiki, Commiserations and Melting), may still be a relatively new project, but it’s one that has quickly gained national and international attention. With a new release Solanacaea coming out on Crow Versus Crow this month, Newman went into detail on the insights and ideas that fuel her work as Penance Stare.

“I moved to the north-east at the end of 2016, following a painful band break up, not really knowing many people here”, Newman explains. “The sound took a while to develop, but the core of it has always been to explore the darker, slower and more atmospheric side of my music taste, which rarely made its way into the frantic punk rock bands I played in previously.”

Penance Stare absorbs influence from a wide range of sounds, including the gothic end of post-punk and ambient work, but the slower, more desolate end of black metal is the bedrock of her sound. As Newman elaborates, “When I started Penance Stare, it was clear how goth/post-punk has become a very narrow, codified sound that has been largely unchanged for around forty years. Noticing the similarities between the more downtempo, depressive approach of Lycia, and the slow sections of some of my favourite black metal songs made me realise that the boundaries between dark musics tend to be pretty arbitrary and meaningless. With that in mind, drawing from anything from death industrial to witch house seemed fairly uncontrived and natural for this project. I wanted to put all of my influences on top of one another instead, noise overlaid with atmosphere until they are inseparable.”

Scrying made for a powerful introduction to Penance Stare earlier this year, but Newman makes clear that Solanacaea is a more confident and experimental effort. “I’m really interested in bands who don’t mellow out. I’ve always wanted to do projects which start at a more conventional place and become increasingly experimental over time. Scrying is primarily made up of ‘pop songs’, with verse/chorus/middle eight structures that are familiar and recognisable. The songs on Solanacaea are trimmed of anything unnecessary, and many of them take a more linear or minimalist form. I think it’s a harsher and stranger record than Scrying was, while still having moments of prettiness, melody and harmony underneath the fuzz.”

the boundaries between dark musics tend to be pretty arbitrary and meaningless

Lyrically, Solanacaea also finds Newman progressing into new territory, moving away from the more occult themes of Scrying into the darkness of the natural world. “I’m actually much happier with the lyrics on this release than previous Penance Stare efforts. I’ve always written about trauma and penance, how surviving horrible things can leave you in a ghostly, liminal space without true closure. This album tends to reference nostalgia and ageing more – turning thirty this year affected me in ways I hadn’t planned for. The botanical references serve a few symbolic purposes. The idea that something can appear harmless and attractive, but poison you when consumed being the most obvious, but also themes of neglect, altered states, madness and so on can all be explored within this semantic field. I’m also not trying to be representational so much as causal, I don’t just want to talk about myself being sad, I want to literally invoke feelings of remorse and regret in the listener if possible.”

Solanacaea also finds Newman pushing further into dark ambient territory, with the emotionally and sonically intense material of much of the record bookmarked by two ebbing, flowing ambient works. “An idea that interests me is how heavy or intense ambient music can be”, Newman notes. “Records like Loveless and Genevieve are incredibly important to me for taking noisy and abrasive rock styles to ambient places. I really want to integrate dark ambient and noise influences even further into the Penance Stare sound as it progresses.”

The process of turning Penance Stare from a recording to a live project proved pivotal in the development of Solanacaea. “I knew [Scrying] was too slow and cerebral to really work live, so I had to immediately write new things with audiences in mind. Playing live puts me into a strange headspace too: having to really perform the songs and connect emotionally with them, usually in front of crowds of anonymous men, can feel more confrontational than I thought it would. I write and record the songs at home, so live shows give me all of this extra volume and intensity to play with. I’m trying to capture some of that on Solanaceae.”

Given the way Newman’s work both draws inspiration from but also diverges wildly from black metal tradition, I wanted to ask her about the challenges posed by working in a field that has been misused by some to glorify vile ideologies of fascism and racism. While the viral success of parodic acts like Neckbeard Deathcamp is proof of a necessary and widespread pushback against this, it’s still an issue of concern to anyone who both enjoys extreme art but also maintains some form of moral compass, and as might be expected Newman is forthright about her stance. “I think this is a very current issue. My position is that black metal doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s a collection of ideas, symbols and images that are decentralised and open-source. It’s particularly important for me to clarify my feelings, since goth and industrial culture have similar issues too. We are seeing some interesting developments in black metal in particular though. There is a wave of explicitly antifascist bands that are getting attention, which is pleasing to see but not personally very inspiring. It’s still a bit of a novelty at this point. The vast majority of black metal that I listen to and enjoy is broadly apolitical in this respect.”

“The common line that internet black metal elitists will dish out is that if you can’t separate the art from the artist, then the music isn’t for you. This doesn’t make sense to me. There is so much music in the world to be found. I don’t need to give a racist my time and money just because the riff to Dunkelheit is pretty catchy. There are always other riffs.”

“I have zero interest in black metal being ‘dangerous’ or ‘hateful’. What attracts me to it is the isolated, outsider quality. That seems completely at odds with a far-right, fascist ideology. Yet black metal culture is incredibly toxic and elitist. People from my intersecting demographics are often unwelcome. The only thing we can do in response is make enough art to serve as a viable alternative. There are women and minorities making and enjoying this music, and we aren’t stopping because some petulant child calls us names on the internet.”

Both live and on record, Newman’s work has been receiving rave reviews, the highlight so far being praise from one of metal’s foremost experts Kim Kelly. “The Kim Kelly piece genuinely made me cry, she’s one of my favourite writers and her support was totally unexpected. Seeing Russell from Striborg wearing a Penance Stare shirt at his recent gig in Australia was also surreal and amazing. I’ve been very lucky so far, and I didn’t think people would like it as much as they seem to. I don’t have much confidence in what I do so I’m incredibly grateful. What’s most significant is that the people I have reached have often been those I admire and respect on their own terms.”

Solanacaea is released on Crow Versus Crow this month.


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