My voice is my freedom: Penelope Trappes

The Demented Goddess [DG]: With your new album, Penelope 3, you told us you found yourself writing about your sole daughter preparing to leave the nest, your mother getting older and also your own sense of metamorphosis. From the opening, mystical track, ‘Veil’, with a divine choral vocal laid over a droning organ, we’re swept into a magical journey of exploration. However, you are unafraid to express uneasiness, which we find refreshing, as culture tries so hard to fix beatific roles for women, whether as mother or daughter. Which sounds particularly allowed you to explore a state of apprehension?

I wrote ‘Veil’ after meeting my friend’s newborn baby, seeing the haunted beauty within her eyes. She was still behind her veil of forgetfulness, still between two worlds. It’s only natural, in this current world that we live in, to feel inwardly and outwardly a sense of apprehension. Not just for what we see going on around us, but for what we have going on inside of our bodies, hearts and minds. We inherit so many emotional fears from our ancestors. Along with our own personal choices that we make, all of this information becomes deeply embedded into our lives.

“The highs and the lows shine a light on the finer details of what we need to heal, in this life.”

The highs and the lows are all part of a greater story that shines a light on the finer details of what we need to heal, in this life. I wanted the vocals in ‘Veil’ to feel haunting – a voice that could move the listener into a place of beauty yet leave them with a sense of the liminal. The tension was created between the voice and the drone to represent the in-between state to which created a sombre mood, allowing the voice to drift the listener upwards and yet back down to the shadows that lie inwards. ‘Veil’ is about universal hope and aspirations. Without the natural balance of light and dark, I don’t believe we can find our own peace.

DG: Cries and murmurings from the natural world – birds of land and sea and the sound of the winds – stir through your songs. What effect have the pandemic lockdowns had on your capacity to listen to the non-human sounds of the world?

Lockdown, with all its anxiety, came with a slight upside for me. Silence. The industrial noise of the world turned off, planes were grounded, cars parked, and the quiet became a way to reconnect wholeheartedly with nature. I have always felt a very strong bond with the land since I was a child growing up in Australia surrounded by rainforest and beaches.

A lot of people embraced this new silence. The birds were now loud and clear, and it could just be my imagination, but they sounded markedly happier when they sang. The wind in the trees could be heard. It even felt like there were more butterflies – or perhaps humans just had time to slow down to notice them more. The first lockdown happened while I was living in South London by Peckham Rye, and for me it became about exploring every corner of the park. By the summer I moved out of the city and to the seaside – Brighton. Reconnecting with water and the sounds of the sea felt like I had found my true home. Despite all the sufferings of the lockdowns, I am eternally thankful to have been able to notice earth’s colours, sounds and beauty so profoundly.

DG: The vocal power of the album gathers in layers of harmony. There is a cocooning effect, being held in so many Penelopes, though the experience is not without moments of turbulence. Did you feel fortressed or freed by your voice as you produced the album? How was your sense of self affected?

My voice was my freedom. I made a concerted effort before I began writing Penelope Three that I would compose around my voice with words and vocalisations that I would bring to the surface: going into a meditative state, a place of quiet, and finding ghosts of melodies that I have carried deep within my subconscious since I was born. Celtic folk melodies, operatic drama, bluesy whispers and moans – all of these many voices making up a bigger picture of the tales my body and heart and mind wanted to tell. The more I delved into this the more I wanted to add counter melodies, the other side to the previous emotion. Sometimes I needed to strip it all the way back to the most quiet and fragile. Exploring the range of feeling, the depth of expression, only gave me more confidence to understand my deeper sense of self. I was empowered by the act of owning the highs and the lows and everything in between, and I felt that I could clearly express the passion and the pain without any self-doubt.

DG: The album mingles the ethereal and sensual, much like Kate Bush at her finest. In ‘Red Yellow’, you keen sexily about burning your house down, a glassy keyboard prickling uncannily over degenerate, bluesy rhythms. Has this period, of your daughter leaving the nest and the pandemic forcing us to stay at home, made you value any homely pleasures more? Or are you looking forward to ripping up old configurations?

Funny you mention Kate Bush, as I’ve adored her since I was very young, and at times, have attempted to channel her drama and sensuality in some of my music. The burning down of the house within ‘Red Yellow’ was about resetting my life and my body, coming into a new form where inner strength, trust and love are dominant and any pain or suffering from my past is burned away. Clearing the slate. This isn’t a new phenomenon for me as I have a history of ripping things up and starting again, like moving to America from Australia, and then again, moving to the UK. I’ve had a lot of clean slates in my life which has enabled a lot of self-discovery.

The simpler way of life forced upon us by the pandemic, and the quiet of an empty nest, has afforded me space to assess my position in life and explore all of the aspects of my own identity – to liberate them. It is almost like being a young adult again but accompanied by my own matured self-awareness. It is a fascinating feeling and very freeing. I can clearly listen to my body and to allow primal energy to stir and create a new reconfigured ‘house’.

‘Slip inside this house’ was a line inspired from the 13th Floor Elevators song of the same name, which has a lot of disparate influences from Eastern religions, Christian mysticism, philosophical thinking, and specifically the teachings of Gurdjieff – which happen to be an inspiration of Kate Bush’s too.

Gurdjieff believed humanity lived their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but he believed that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness through music, sacred dance, writing. I intend to continue to try to tear down societal barriers of the patriarchal systems and gatekeepers that want to hold humans back. Starting again is like waking up, and ‘Red Yellow’ is a testament to the power of destruction and reconstruction.

DG: ‘Awkward Matriarch’, with which the album climaxes, is a grandiose and triumphant song, yet the trancelike harmonies once again lift off into the unresolved. Is there something paradoxically comforting about facing our fears?

Definitely. People naturally run from anything fearful and it definitely seems absurd to run straight into its arms. But I have come to stage in life that in order to heal, there is no other way. I simply cannot turn a blind eye on the pain and suffering that I have inherited on my matriarchal side of the family. The suffering that women, non-gender conforming people, and non-white people have had to face, for centuries and beyond, is real and is within us. We carry it everywhere we go and in every action we take… Ignoring it is an impossibility. As a woman, my body has been reminding me of these stories for years. I have physical scars and I have emotional and hormonal responses that only make me look inward and ask, ‘Why?’.

But instead of suffering through this process, I want to calm my troubles, like a mother holding a crying baby and sing to them, call out to them, scream, cry, love. Through the vocal dynamics in ‘Awkward Matriarch’, from singing as quietly as possible, to as loud as i can be… I hoped to convey those extremes. It’s a triumphant moment, but in order to get there we have to face fearful thoughts that lie below the surface. The comfort comes though knowing that you are awake and on an honest path. In order to stay true, an emotional and hypnotic state must be maintained in some way, to allow peace to continue to flow into our hearts.

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