Hether Fortune is 28 years old and has been making music since she was a angsty teenager locked in her bedroom in Michigan. A self-taught musician who can nimbly switch between guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums with ease, Fortune started her band Wax Idols as an experiment in self-expression five years ago. Five years ago, Fortune was still a young girl, albeit a fiercely independent one, and she made the kind of music you might expect an angry young girl with a goth bent to make – shadowy, bristly post-punk that demonstrated both her growing musical prowess and her still-forming persona, howling growing pains and all. (Angry young goth girls who are tone-deaf and clumsy-fingered do not make music, but I did write some truly terrible poetry). After several releases and some pretty heavy touring, Fortune quickly became known for her compelling stage presence and her robust sexuality, as well as her outspoken opinions, which were doled out with the immediacy and intensity of youth, and which branded her as a bold, fiery (and sometimes reactionary) voice.
Since then, Fortune has played with several other bands, grappled with personal demons both past and present, and perhaps most immediately evident in her newest album American Tragic, gone through a marriage and a divorce. What’s maybe not immediately evident is this, Wax Idols’ third full length album, is not just a break-up album. To call it so would be doing both Fortune and the record a disservice. Both are far more interesting than that. Besides, Fortune, a former dominatrix, poet, and practicing spiritualist, is not one to be so easily undone.
With her rich, commanding voice and deft ability to shroud a perfectly catchy pop melody in darkly seductive layers of sound (perhaps most evident in the lush, dynamic track “Lonely You”), Fortune has made an album that not only documents but also exorcises her personal demons. With American Tragic, she has let go of the angry young girl. Instead, a complex, mature woman stands in her place, one who is able to be vulnerable enough to openly heal herself through her music, and we are the ones who reap the benefits in the form of an emotionally engaging, sparkling dark-pop album.
I talked to my friend and former roommate Hether about her evolution as a musician, the difficulties of trying to advance as a woman in what is still a very male-dominated industry, and her obsession with the arcade (which I cut out of the interview because nobody wants to read three paragraphs of an inside joke):
It’s now being recorded, okay, alright, we’re on the record.
Listen, I need you to take this seriously.
I’m a serious journalist, and this is a serious interview.
Okay, I understand… My game face is on.
What was the first song you learned to play on the guitar?
I don’t remember what the very first one was. Probably some easy 2-chord thing, like fuckin’ the hot cross buns or something like that, I don’t know. The first song that I was like, “I really want to learn this song,” was actually “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’s a really hard song to try and learn how to play for your very first time, because Frusciante is a great guitarist. I spent months trying to learn how to play the *vocalizes intro to “Under the Bridge”*… that riff, or whatever. Eventually I figured it out but by the time I could play it, I realized how dumb the song was and I was bummed at how much time I spent learning it.
How dare you.
I know, my step-dad loved the Chili Peppers. At the time I was like, going through his whole CD collection absorbing all this music and stuff and I really liked that song. Which is odd, because that song is about being a junkie and I was twelve and had absolutely no concept of what it meant being addicted to heroin. You know.
Wait, it’s not about being under… a bridge?
It’s about being under a bridge waiting to score, or like, shooting up.
Now let’s talk about your pretty heavy past in the scene. Not the heroin scene.
In the scene?
Isn’t that what the kids call it? Scene music?
Being scene? Ohhh yes, yes.
That’s after my time because I’m 100, but I feel like you had a Flickr account, where you put up the pictures of you and your friends in striped hoodies and such.
I had a DeviantArt account, LiveJournal, Myspace, all that. Umm yeah I was scene. I wasn’t scene, you know, in like the extreme way of having really super tight webbed ultra tees, with a haircuts that was black with red and white streaks and sideways swipes. I didn’t do that shit, like I wasn’t that ridiculous. I like the Blood Brothers. The Blood Brothers and that whole ultra-scene, fashion-core, thing was not…there’s so many layers that it’s really complicated.
I know, I want to unravel it. I want to get to the core of Hether.
Oh okay, my history. So, shortly after I learned “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I then got into punk music. So it was like, “Wait, this sucks.” Then I started listening to The Clash and was like, “Oh, this is cooler!” And then I found out about Black Flag, and then, you know, the usual stepping stones towards getting into punk that happened before you were alive. Then, I realized that there was a contemporary scene of bands…you know, that hardcore had happened. And I got really into that. I just started going to shows. I went to Detroit to shows all the time and I got really into hardcore bands and screamo stuff. That was my whole teenage life. I listened to other music at home, like The Cure and stuff.
But I was really into going to see what people were doing at the present time. I organized my first show when I was fifteen. It was an 80s themed show at VFW and I had eight bands play, and if you dressed up in 80s costume you got in free. I did that before I could even drive. That was my whole life. That’s all I cared about.
What was the first song that you wrote, what did it sound like and what was it about?
I don’t remember what the first song I wrote was. The first song that I can remember writing that I made a recording of was a song called “5000 Bones” and it was kind of like a Gun Club-esque, dark, bluesy song and I was eighteen, I think. It was about a girl who was trying to sue me for money for a really dumb reason and she was a rich girl and I had was broke. I just thought she was a really awful person that I wrote a song about how much she sucks and that was it.
I want to talk more about something kind of serious. So, I know you saw it and participated in it, the recent Twitter thing that Jessica Hopper did basically asking women to come forward about the first time, or any time that they were discriminated against or treated unfairly in the music or journalism world. What were some of the struggles that you had to overcome that were distinctly related to you being a woman?
One of the main problems that I’ve come up against are men in the industry assuming that I don’t do everything that I do. Just like automatically assuming that surely if there is a guy playing in the band, surely that guy must be the one writing the songs. That some boyfriend got me into stuff or plays on my records for me or something like that. That’s kind of a common assumption. I don’t think it happens so much anymore though because I’ve been pretty outspoken, like “No, actually I know how to do all of this, really, nope it’s actually me!”
And I’ve played enough instruments in live settings often enough to prove it at this point.
But was that the most damaging thing, a perception issue? Or were there also instances that got in the way of you actually doing things, like blocked you from going forward?
Yes, that has happened.
Recently we were talking about how the industry causes women to be pitted against each other. You know, in the end, unfortunately we can’t control the patriarchy or the structure, not totally, but you we can control the way we treat each other. And an unfortunate outcome is that that does happen a lot. Katy Goodman talked about Pitchfork and how they once said that now that there’s Dum Dum Girls, there’s no need for Vivian Girls. I think as women we really do fall prey to it. And I don’t know if that’s because there’s this narrative that it’s in our, women’s, nature to be competitive with each other or not, but it’s so damaging.
No. See I don’t think it is. I think that it’s been… you know, men have been spinning the tale that women are catty and bitchy and jealous and insecure and whatever, you know, for however long that we’ve then come to accept that – “Oh yeah, this is how girls are.” I don’t think that’s true at all. I think it’s in the nature of women or feminine-identifying people, to be really loving and supportive and to want to encourage other people. I don’t really think that that’s an innate quality in women to be competitive and mean and jealous and want to tear each other down. I think that it’s a symptom of a greater sickness that has nothing to do with being a woman. It has to do with the way society is set up. When I was younger I fell prey to that as well. Big time. I was always afraid that some other chick was going to come in and steal my thunder. Because that’s what the industry had taught me to believe.
That’s the narrative. There’s only room for one.
That’s the narrative. And it’s only the last few years that I’ve been able to realize how horrible that is and how untrue that is. I’m really trying to fight against that now and just celebrate anyone who does anything that I think is good or that makes me feel something, and not think about how it affects me or my status or my chances in the industry. Because it doesn’t. You know, it doesn’t have to if we don’t let it. And yeah I saw that, Katy and Dee Dee (of Dum Dum Girls) they had an exchange about it. And Dee Dee was like yeah, they’re trying to make it seem like there’s only room for either me or you. We’re not stupid. We see that it’s happening but I think there’s a level of awareness or discussion that hasn’t occurred up until recently. Now we’re talking about it more and I think that will help.
Have you found yourself caught up in similar things? Or you look back and you’re like, wow I was definitely tricked into some girl on girl crime and later you realize, fuck that wasn’t even what that was about.
Yeah! Yeah, definitely. I mean, when I first coming up with Wax Idols, I was vehemently against being associated with bands like Vivian Girls or Dum Dum Girls or whatever. So I was like, “I’m not doing what they do, I’m not a girl band like that, blah blah blah.” I didn’t want to be associated with it at all because I was just so determined to prove that I wasn’t that. Whatever I thought “that” was. And I was really judgmental about it, about girl groups, and that kind of thing because I was just so uncomfortable with the idea of gender and it mattering. I still think that stuff doesn’t matter.
It shouldn’t matter, but my perception has changed dramatically and now I’m learning, and being able to understand why it is important to make certain distinctions and to talk about how your gender affects the way your worth is treated. Because unfortunately, it still does affect that. And until we talk about it, and work it out, and make it change, I’m living in a fantasy world. Because I’m all, “Gender doesn’t matter!” when it does. It’s affected me directly and I would be delusional and shooting myself in the foot if I tried to say that you know, it doesn’t.
It’s crazy how indoctrinated we are, even sometimes thinking: “If I was a man I’d be more successful…” Even that thought is inherently misogynistic. We’re so indoctrinated with that way of thinking, that we even say it about ourselves.
You know, I’ve accepted that that is a condition of our society right now. Especially for me.
Let’s talk about your new album, American Tragic! It just came out last week. Let’s talk about the journey Hether Fortune has taken from putting out her first Wax Idols 7” to now. Your sound has changed. Your skill level has changed. What else would you say has changed?
Well, when I first started… I was just, you know, in a bedroom, in a house, with like a crappy drumset and a guitar and Garage Band, and was like, “I have these songs I want to get out of my system and I know how to play all these instruments, and I was just like kind of just seeing what I could do. Testing the waters and throwing it out there, seeing what kind of a songwriter I was. That was what my first few records were about. Just me exploring how to write songs, how to compose, how to produce, how to work with all of my knowledge of sound and instrumentation, and also my desire to write and perform. Just kind of figuring out how to make it work, basically. So a lot of the early stuff was kind of bare bones. Then once I had a couple of records under my belt, I was like, okay! I can do this! It’s proven, I’ve done it. I can write and produce and create and perform music. And I can hone a whole band and I can garner a certain amount of attention for it and get people to come to my shows. This is a thing I can do.
So I got a little confidence and then I asked myself, “Alright, what do I want to do next? Where am I at now?” I did the second record and it was way more complicated, there was a lot more going on, and I started exploring power dynamics, emotionally and socially. I was also exploring sonic texture, and I was really into guitar. I was really kind of hitting my peak with guitar at the time, I was all about playing guitar and using the guitar in weird ways. So the second album was heavy guitar and more noise influenced. I was really trying to push my potential.
Were you trying to show off a little? Like, I’m a shredder!
I was trying to show off a little! Not so much a shredder, I’ve never been a shredder. I can’t like whale like crazy metal riffs or something. Nor do I ever want to or give a shit. But I was trying to flex my musician’s muscles a bit. I was trying to show the range of my abilities. So that’s what that record was about and I feel like I accomplished that. A constant throughout my entire life is that I don’t like it when people get comfortable. I don’t want ever for anybody to think that they know what to expect from me in terms of what kind of music I’m going to write or what I’m capable of, because I’m always pushing myself to get better and to grow and so no one should ever think they know what I’m going do next, because they don’t. And that’s an ego thing, but I admit it, I own it.
When that was out of my system, I had no desire to prove anything. So now with this record… It’s a super emotional record, with me just trying to release a bunch of feelings and use the platform I’ve created and the skills I’ve accumulated over the years to help me be more vulnerable. My motive has changed. It’s less about proving myself or proving what I can do and more about trying to use music as a medium for healing.
You’ve you said this is a break up album but also not a break up album. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
I wrote it while I was going through a divorce so inevitably the seams of heartbreak and separation and loss are in there. That was what was happening in my life so it does schematically deal with those subjects. But at the same time, I was focusing on the record and focusing on music and threw myself into it wholly in order to get back to myself and to not be consumed and destroyed by the relationship ending and by my depression and my sadness. So it ended up being a really triumphant experience. A lot of times break up songs or break up albums, they are really about wallowing in the feeling, and this whole record is me trying to push through the feeling.
Songs like “Lonely You”- that was the first song that I wrote for the album and definitely we had that be the first single because it’s the beginning of the journey. I was totally immersed in that feeling of loneliness and being abandoned and being lost and really sad. I sat there and I addressed it and I got it out through writing and then I moved along. This record was absolutely like a 12-step program for getting through a divorce. That’s how it felt for me.
You know, I don’t think anybody would listen to this record and at the end of it be like, bummed, you know? If they were paying attention, at the end of the record they would be like, “I can do anything! If I’m sad, I can get through it. If I’m suicidal, I don’t have to kill myself.” That what I hope translates the loudest through the record.
This album is coming out via Collect Records, which is a new label helmed by one Geoff Rickly of the band Thursday, formerly, and currently of the band United Nations. And I think a few other bands, I have to consult Wikipedia. Talk to me about you ended up putting out a record on your childhood Flickr-scene-screamo hero’s label.
(Laughs) Well, actually this is one of the better stories of my life. I was the biggest Thursday fan of all time. I challenge any Thursday fan to a duel. I was number one, numero uno, most devoted. I went to any show that was in a 300 mile radius of me for many years, and had every piece of merch, and every record, and knew every word to every song. I analyzed Autobiography of a Nation for a poetry assignment when I was in high school. I was devoted.
And because I was so devoted and I was so present at all their midwest shows, and I was this really young, tomboyish, hyper-aggressive, weirdo fan kid, the band all just kind of knew me, and knew I would be there. It got to the point where they had discussions, you know, they’d be like “Did somebody put that weird girl Hether on the guestlist?” They’d be like “Ohh yeah I put her on already.” Which was really sweet because a lot of bands aren’t like that. They don’t give a shit on a one-on-one level. But Thursday really recognized that I was always there, in the front row, knew every word, screaming along, and was the most devoted.
My whole life was very wrapped up in Thursday, and Geoff was my hero. I admired him as a writer, and as a performer. He was empathetic, and very outspoken politically, about women’s rights, and about LGBT activism. It was just very socially conscious and aware, and the music was really emotional, and it was really important to me. Long story short, I would email Geoff poems, and he would write back, give me critiques and stuff, and it was great. Then we lost touch for a few years. I found him on Twitter maybe four years ago or something, and I was like “Hey! Remember me?” And he proceeded to freak out, and was like, “Holy shit! Oh my god!” And he realized that…
And then he was like, “Didn’t you get the restraining order I sent you?”
No, no, no (laughs). We just got back in touch. And he became a major support system for me, and we became really good friends. I was looking for a new label for this record, and he was like, “Hey, I would like to sign you.” And that’s it, he did, and he and Norman at Collect have been the most supportive, awesome people ever, and it’s amazing. I feel really grateful.
That’s like a really beautiful story that could’ve ended in jail time or institutionalization, but it ended totally differently.
(Laughs) No way! There’s nothing wrong with being a fan.
I’m just saying, at any point of this story, it could’ve taken a deep left turn where you’re putting paste on your face and writing Thursday in period blood on the wall, and that didn’t happen and that’s definitely special. Just kidding. Truly, Geoff Ricky is a fantastic person that we love very much and in this part of the interview, I will insert a link to our interview with Geoff Rickly, you should read it.
Sometimes I think back and it’s really so full circle and serendipitous and crazy. I mean, who… I can’t… It’s a really crazy story. It’s awesome.
Have you started writing your new album after this one yet, and if so, how many songs are about me?
Yes, I have, I have started writing bits and pieces already, because that’s what you do. I have, and all of it is about you.
10/23: Juice Church, Denver, CO
10/24: Knickerbocker’s, Lincoln, NE
10/27: The Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL
10/28: Marble Bar, Detroit, MI
10/29: Mr.Roboto, Pittsburgh, PA
10/31: St. Vitus, Brooklyn, NY
11/2: The Earl, Atlanta, GA
11/4: Mohawk, Austin, TX
11/5: Paper Tigers, San Antonio, TX
11/7: The Rebel Room, Phoenix, AZ
11/8: Complex, Los Angeles, CA