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“What I try to do is transform my negative experiences into ways I can have a positive influence on the world, like being more open about mental health struggles, gender issues and advocating for other survivors. I would say that all of my lyrics, no matter what other things they’re inspired by, like pop culture, books, TV or movies, there’s always an element of me in there and the things that I have gone and am going through.” Mae Shults, the chicago-based mastermind behind Everson Poe, is candidly discussing the elements and inspirations that inform and inspire her music. An exceptionally prolific artist, Shults has been writing, recording and releasing music as Everson Poe since 2009, embracing genres as diverse as post-punk, doom and black metal. 2020 found Shults out of work and with Covid lockdown restrictions in place, an abundance of free time resulting in a year that saw her record five whole bodies of work, a period which she looks back on fondly, recalling how it was “really nice to have the time and energy to focus on music so much.”
Grief, released in March of this year, is the latest album from Everson Poe and is perhaps the project’s most stunning work to date. The record takes on a narratively driven theme, one which sees the world of a tormented serial killer unfold as he comes to terms with the consequences of his actions. Following the release of Grief, Astral Noize had a chat with Shults to discuss in more detail the themes running throughout the album, the obstacles facing those in the trans community, the impact of mental health issues on the writing process and the importance of being outspoken against hatred and discrimination in the metal scene.
The seeds of Grief can be found in a track by fellow Trepanation Recordings labelmates Catafalque. “One of the songs on [Catafalque’s] We Will Always Suffer has a little sample from The Exorcist III and I watched that movie for the first time last year, and I loved it so much I watched it again and something about that really hit me,” shults explains. “Then I watched both seasons of Mindhunter, and I’m really fascinated by Richard Speck and Ed Kemper. I wanted to build a song that was musically simple and then fold samples into it. I’ve used samples before like on my album The Body Is Not Sacred. There’s a couple samples of Genesis P-Orridge talking about gender and sexuality because that album is basically all about being trans and not really knowing how to process that. But yeah, I wanted to be more sample heavy on this song. So I found a couple of Kemper interviews and used those in the song and it turned out to be one of the darkest songs I’d ever made.”
Indeed, one of the aspects that makes much of Grief such an arresting listen is the way in which Shult’s chosen samples weave effortlessly in and out of the intensively atmospheric music. Interestingly, this track which Shults refers to, the first written for Grief, ‘Acceptance’, does also have it’s own lyrics – just don’t expect her to reveal what they are. “I did them in like one take and I don’t know what I said. If you look in the lyric section for that song on Bandcamp, the lyrics are just three question marks. I didn’t write it down, and I even isolated the track after I mixed it and I have no idea what I’m singing *laughs*, or screaming. So basically, from there, I started thinking, ‘what if this is the end point to the narrative’.” From this initial track a whole story began to take shape, from which Shults went on to create an album’s worth of material.
“All of my albums have themes, whether it’s just things I’m feeling in my life, or a connecting story, like with Rituals it’s all about different kinds of rituals. But I’ve never done an album with a straight up story or line of narrative. So I started thinking, ‘how I could do that?’.” As Shults began to look into ways she could shape the narrative, she began researching the five stages of grief, and how as humans we all experience and process them in a similar way.
“There are so many things in life we grieve; any kind of loss is grief,” she explains. “So a death or an ending of a friendship, you know, losing a material object, depending on how important it is to us, it’s all a type of loss and loss leads to grief. So while all people process grief in different ways depending on how long they stay in each stage, they all go through the same five stages.” Through Grief’s five tortured tracks we witness the protagonist go through these five stages as he continues to carry out his crimes in the name of religion, slowly becoming aware of his own actions.
A self-described atheist, Shults explains how the album is also about the ways in which religion can be twisted to pervert and justify hateful views. “My problem comes when people use religion to try and justify horrible actions and hatred,” she explains. “That seems so counterintuitive to me, as the central message to most religions seems to be love. So when people twist it around like that it’s so unsettling and infuriating to me. So with Grief I started thinking about a serial killer that’s using religion to justify his actions. He starts to think he is possessed by a demon and that the demon is controlling his actions and therefore he sees himself as defying God’s will. He then comes to realise that there’s no such thing as demons, God is not real, all of these actions have been of his own volition and they have damned him to a life of suffering. He’s not going to hell, he’s stuck in hell on earth.” It’s a harrowing tale, and Shults moves through these parts of the narrative over five shifting, devastating tracks, rendering Grief an exceptionally intense and emotional listening experience.
The doom-laden music which comprises Grief is hauntingly beautiful, with epic guitar passages adorning thunderous drums, subtle bass lines and Shults’ own imposing vocals which range from guttural growls to malevolent screams. On first listen it seems something this intricate would take an age to record, but quite the opposite is true. “It all came together so quickly and so perfectly,” beams Shults. Additionally, Grief marks the first time the mixing process was handled by someone other than herself, this time employing the skills of db from The Sun Came Up Upon The Left. “I was really nervous about it,” she admits. “But I’d heard work db had done for a few other people and all of our interactions on Twitter were so kind, so sweet. He reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I really love your music, if you ever want to work with me on it, mixing or mastering it, just let me know’. So I sent the new album to him and he loved it and again it all kind of fell into place.”
After creating ‘Acceptance’, Shults was keen to expand the use of samples throughout Grief to propel the narrative, which meant long hours spent searching for the right audio files. “I wanted to build my own story that wasn’t based on anything in reality necessarily but where I was using pieces of reality. That’s why I used a bunch of samples of preachers talking, because those are real,” explains Shults, going on to detail how she unearthed some very disturbing samples in her search. “I found a lot of them on archives.org and I spent hours scouring that site and listening to that stuff. I mean some of the stuff these guys are saying is just horrifying, and so… Again, you can believe what you want, but actually believing that people get possessed by demons and that’s what causes things like being gay, the fact they find those things evil, is so fucking weird to me.” Some of what she found was just too upsetting to use. “There’s a sample, I think at the beginning of ‘Denial’ where this preacher is talking about being confused and what it means to be a person. There’s a line that I cut out where he talks about being confused about being a man or a woman. And you know what, I thought this is dark enough, I’m not having a fucking transphobic comment in here. db was very much ‘yeah, cut that out’.”
Since an early age, when Shults first came out, she has had to deal with a sickening amount of transphobia, bullying and prejudice, from both her peers at high school and members of her own family. After being asked whether she is happy to talk about her experiences, she laughs and admits to being a “chronic over-sharer” and that she sees trans people opening up about their experiences as an encouraging sign. “I came out as bisexual when I was in like Junior High, so I was like twelve or thirteen,” she says. “When I was like fourteen, I started figuring I was trans. I didn’t really understand it at the time, and then once I started to, I ended up in an abusive relationship for five years with somebody who tried to squeeze all the femininity out of me and somehow emasculated me constantly too, it was very confusing. When I was younger I got the shit bullied out of me, especially in High School. I would get death threats, people would beat the shit out of me and I got shoved into a locker once. I passed out in the locker and smashed my head into the door. People were horrible to me, and with no reason other than me being queer, and painting my nails and dressing the way I wanted to.”
Things were similarly difficult in her home and personal life. Born into a Jewish family, Shults declared her atheism to her family when she was ten, and gave up going to temple. Her parents were supportive, but other fractions of her family began to distance themselves when she came out as trans. “I definitely ran into issues with my extended family, because no one, no one in my extended family is queer. They’re all pretty straight laced, so when I started painting my nails and coming out as queer, and especially as I was dealing with a lot of depression, they went from really loving me to not understanding me, not really trying and kinda treating me like shit.”
Like many in the trans community who have grown up ostracised by their own families, Shults is keen to emphasise the importance of having accepting, loving and non judgemental people by your side. “There’s a saying that I love, ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’,” she says. “It’s a phrase that has been perverted into ‘blood is thicker than water’, and that means the opposite of its original meaning, which is that your chosen family is more important than the family into which you are born, and that to me is a huge thing. I think that’s a really huge thing for a lot of queer folks, chosen family is so important and that can include actual DNA related family but it doesn’t have to and that’s okay.”
As Shults describes both the torment she received at the hands of her bullies and the varying attitudes of her extended family, it’s obvious why it has taken her many years to begin to feel comfortable about expressing herself as the person she has always been on the inside. “I mean, that’s why it’s been so long,” she explains. “I’m 34 this year and I didn’t start HRT until last year and in the last couple of months I’ve started dressing femme every day and I consulted with a plastic surgeon in July about top surgery, I’m so fucking excited.” Shults’ confidence and happiness is palpable. Having traversed through so much turmoil in her life, it seems she’s reached a place where she’s beginning to feel comfortable and happy by simply just being herself. “Yeah,” she agrees with a smile. “I started dealing with depression when I was eight, so that’s 26 years. And finally. in the last few months, is when I felt that lift. I feel like I can really be me and it’s an incredible feeling and everyone has noticed and been incredibly supportive of me.”
Having already released Grief and charity cover EP Enough Enough, it’s unsuprising to learn there’s already another Everson Poe album in the can, ready to be mixed by db once again. This time, inspiration has been taken from Possession, a 1981 film starring Sam Neill. “The new album is all inspired by fairy tales,” explains Shults. “I realised Possession is sort of a fairy tale in itself, just the way the story progresses and it’s also about transformation. So I used dialogue samples from the movie on four of the five tracks, and, you’re getting the scoop on this *laughs* but the sides were going to be unbalanced and I’m all about balance, so I reached out to Chris H of The Earth Devoured By The Sun. I sent him all the songs and was like ‘Hey, do you want to create an interlude piece for me?’ and he literally got it back to me twelve hours later. I was like ‘holy shit’, I feel he turns stuff around the way I do. He was so excited about it. I was like ‘it’s a little bit short’ and he said ‘why don’t you just double it?’ so I doubled the length and for the second part of it I used a poem from The Robber Bridegroom and I just screamed that over the top of it. I love it when I do stuff like that.” Interestingly, this forthcoming album will feature a surprising amount of clean vocals too. “I discovered I can sing like Brian Molko from Placebo and there’s also a couple of songs where I figured out I can do high operatic vocals too.”
As her future musical endeavours are discussed, talk turns to the metal scene. Notoriously conservative, the more progressive musicians, writers and fans amongst us would like to think it’s becoming a more accepting scene, more open, but what is the reality? “I think beside all of us trans and queer artists, and people who are good and are proper allies, I think having people like you who are… I hate to use the term gatekeeping, but gatekeeping in a positive way, keeping out the hate and negativity and stuff and making it..,” she trails off, thinking. “You know I said in my Growls And Shrieks interview and the one I did with Cavedweller, and I’m going to keep saying this but people say ‘metal should be dangerous’ and I agree. It should be dangerous, for people who think it’s okay to preach hatred, it should be dangerous to people who think it’s okay to discriminate against people just for being who they are. And a lot of us are starting to make it dangerous to those people by saying ‘you do not get to be part of this, if that is who you are’. It’s the paradox of intolerance, the only thing it’s good not to tolerate is intolerance.”
Shults is a relative newcomer to the world of metal twitter but admits it has been refreshing to find a place within the scene that is more accepting and welcoming. “One of the things I really appreciate is that there are publications like yours who are so supportive and so accepting and so intolerant of all of the bullshit that goes on in the metal world,” she says. “I wasn’t really embedded in the metal scene until last year, and it wasn’t until like the end of 2019 when I started interacting with people, like Tommy from Order Of The Wolf, and Sarah Allen Reed, then I really started branching out and started meeting people. I put out Reviens À Moi, Sang De Mon Sang, which is my post-punk album and that got a really good response from people. Vic from Vile Creature posted it on one of their Instagram stories and yeah, so that got a lot of positive feedback.” As Shults began to immerse herself in the world of metal Twitter, another new alliance was born. “That’s when I reached out to Dan at Trepanation Recordings, and he was like ‘Oh my God, I love this, I wanna release this’ and I’m so thankful for that relationship, so thankful for Dan, he is one of the most lovely human beings ever. He’s just such a good person.”
Shults is happy to have found herself in what she considers is a more accepting, forward-thinking corner of the metal scene, but the prejudices she and others have faced are of course not unique to music culture. Bigotry and prejudice are present in every facet of modern society, with the same catalyst feeding them all. “Capitalism is literally the root of almost every single fucking problem,” Shults says passionately. “Capitalism is the root of slavery, capitalism is the root of homophobia and transphobia and misogyny, and it’s obviously the root of racism. Because people are so concerned with turning a profit, they don’t give a shit about other people; it’s always profit over people.”
If we are to take a stand, it’s clear that our actions are the most important weapon in the fight, as Shults proved in 2010, when she was offered a position to work in R. Kelly’s studio in Chicago. “They offered me this job and it was going to pay a lot of money and I sat there for a couple of seconds and just said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t work for sexual predators’ and hung up the phone. That was one of the proudest moments of my life. It’s about not compromising your morals and values for profit and I think that’s the biggest thing and… fuck, I knew this was going to happen, I always end up going on an anti-capitalist rant *laughs*. It’s just so eternally frustrating to me and that’s why I am such an outspoken anti-capitalist. But hey, if I’m going to be known for anything, being the staunch anti-capitalist who doesn’t put up with bullshit is totally fine by me.”
With an incredibly diverse catalogue already, Shults will undoubtedly be remembered for this and so much more. For those that have followed Everson Poe’s musical trajectory over the past decade, it’s heartwarming to see her star begin to rise. With each release, something new is always offered, and however many albums Everson Poe manages to release this year, they will without question be amongst the most emotive and eclectic.
Grief is out now on Trepanation Recordings. Order here.
Words: Adam Pegg