Eileen is a musical group inspired by the creation of murder ballads from a heroine’s perspective. The Chicago based group includes Becky Poole and Christine Stulik who vocalize dark canons with instruments such as the banjo, saw, accordion, and ukulele. Their music follows the traditional ballad form, the lyrics of which describe the events of a murder. The following is a short interview between the author and Becky Poole.
KS: In reference to your ballad “I’ll Lay You Down”, how might this song have affected your audience if it was sung from a male’s perspective (like in Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads) instead of a female’s? Would the lyrics carry more weight and/or would the mood drastically shift?
BP: That story is all around us. We’ve already heard the male perspective repeatedly, consistently. We know so well the version where the female story disappears. We know the versions in which the female body is used as a metaphor and violence against women is the backdrop for a male protagonist’s storyline. This is why I gave myself the very simple exercise to write murder ballads from the perspective of a female killer.
This particular song though (“I’ll Lay You Down”) is not necessarily gendered. This wasn’t on purpose and didn’t even occur to me until speaking with Ken Bigger from Murder Ballad Mondays “The women’s voices put us in mind of a new kind of protagonist, but we should note that there’s not a single explicit gender reference to protagonist or victim in the song.” So, it seems the fact that women are singing the song is what genders it; a choice that has worked to great affect with other murder ballads/songs written with male protagonists, one epic example being Tori Amos’s version of the Eminem song “97 Bonnie & Clyde”.
So to get back to your original question, I’m not sure it would offer it more or less weight, but it would be weighted differently, yes.
KS: All of your ballads revolve around the central theme of telling a story, if there was one concept or lesson that you would want your audience to take from your songs, what would it be?
BP: Hopefully, the take away is that an audience will consume stories that tell an interesting complicated story with a female leading the action. In particular to Eileen’s songs, the exercise was to create or retell stories of murder where women can be heroes, villains, victims, full humans and not just mythical metaphors or plot devices.
KS: Most artists write a song with a particular audience in mind, whether it’s punk music targeting teen angst or pop music targeting, well basically everyone. If you could generalize your listeners, what are some characteristics you would use to describe them?
BP: Because the music is already in the genre of folk and some directly culled from traditional Appalachian songs, the audience that likes that sound is most likely who’d come across it. We have had success performing at story-telling and theatre style venues because the audience is prepared for that type of listening. The songs can be long and repetitive, an aspect of the Murder Ballad that helps carry a story’s emotional weight and paces the painful unfolding.
KS: In some of the murder ballads that you write/perform, such as “Let You Go”, do you feel as if you’re giving the victims in the story a voice or some sort of vindication? Do you feel some sort of relief after performing these songs as well?
BP: There is a strange feeling of power or possession of story in trying on the words of any character. In acting or performance when you have to portray a “bad character” you never think they are bad. You get to see, or find, what makes them human. It is a safe place to be empathetic or sympathetic.
I do feel a sort of sad relief. As a consumer of the story, of the horror, I am using performance to help me intake the information as well as share it. I am filtering it though my own emotions and offering an outlook for the audience. The story is not mine. But I am sharing my experience of it.
I’m not offering vindication for the victims, if the victims are the children. If we look at Andrea Yates herself as a victim of perhaps religion, her culture, her mental illness, a patriarchal environment, perhaps there is a sympathy, or a curiosity for her motives, but not vindication.
KS: Christine mentioned that she is particularly interested in magical realism. Could you elaborate on how this artistic component contributes to your work? Are there any other subtle artistic components that can be identified within your songs?
BP: I believe that was a moment in time when we were really thinking about the imagery of our words. How do you make the graphic palatable, interesting, not just pornographic? How can you talk about violence in a poetic way? When do you want to, and what does it mean to talk flowery about an act of violence, of death? The point for me is to tell a story but also to move someone. Move them toward emotion, toward empathy, toward action (I mean that politically!).