San Francisco songstress Sharon Knight is a Celtic folk singer in leather armbands. Her distinctive voice and striking poetry have won her a loyal following across the country. Preferring to stray from tradition, Sharon and and her longtime collaborator Winter have developed their own Celtic-hybrid style, “Neofolk Romantique.” This often sounds less Celtic and more “folktales that ran away with the Faeries at the turn of the century and took cover in an old trunk bound for the circus, which was then commandeered by pirates.” This suits them fine.
I got to know Sharon last year when she played a show in Denton. We worked together via e-mail to get the show set up – I was as impressed with her dedication and professionalism as I was with her playing and singing… which is to say, a lot! Cathy and I hosted Sharon and Winter after the show and greatly enjoyed our time together.
Sharon’s most recent album Neofolk Romantique came out this Summer.
John: You’re a Feri initiate – how has your Feri experience informed and supported your work as a musician?
Sharon Knight: Feri was my first introduction to magic, and I experienced first hand how powerful it can be to open to magical realms. From what I understand, not all traditions deal with the pure electric currents of magic, some are more liturgical. But in Feri, it is desirable to awaken what we call the Feri fire, a subtle electricity akin to kundalini, and which, when ignited, enhances perception greatly. You could say to ignite the Feri fire is to awaken the Ichor – the blood of the Gods – in our own blood, thus greatly enhancing our ability to touch and taste the realms of the Gods. Rituals that don’t open these gates feel flat to me.
So, I have this precedent that I strive for as a musician as well. I want to kindle these fires in others with music, to stir and awaken an experience of magic in the listeners. It is every musician’s ideal to be able to captivate their audience and hold them in thrall, and my Feri training has definitely given me tools which enhance my ability to do this.
Where do you feel closest to the Gods? What do you to do strengthen that connection?
The sea, absolutely. And the woods. I live near the sea, and visit both frequently. Regular immersion in nature is crucial to my well-being. I am an avid hiker, and will often hike at night under the full moon and do ritual or meditation in an open meadow in the Oakland Hills.
We are part of nature, and to be immersed in her is essential to my sense of interconnectedness with the deeper forces of creation. This interconnectedness is the essence of magic, as I see it. Also – this won’t surprise anyone – singing really connects me to the realm of the Gods. All creation is vibration, and we can bring ourselves into harmony with the world around us by singing and making music.
What do you do spiritually and magically to promote your creativity? Are there rituals or practices you do before you begin the songwriting process? Or during the process?
I will often take a moment to ground and center. We have a practice in Feri called Aligning the Triple Soul, which is akin to the Celtic Three Cauldrons meditation. Each of these involves invoking our Godsoul – our divine spark, the source of Awen – and drawing this into ourselves, aligning it with our emotional-intellectual and psycho-physical centers. This helps me quite a bit in setting the right space for creativity. I will often light candles and incense, and wear an outfit that makes me feel beautiful. Perhaps I will make offerings to a Deity and invite their participation, if I want a particular piece to bear their influence.
I will also allow myself to write a freeform, stream of consciousness word flow for about 10 minutes before writing lyrics, to prime the pump. I might take a walk or run in nature before sitting down to craft a new song.
And sometimes I do none of this stuff. I just get started, and the act of doing itself is the ritual. I just let come what comes. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not. But you know, the trick to writing a good song is to write a lot of songs.
How do your spiritual practices differ when you’re writing as opposed to when you’re on tour?
Ha! I am lucky if I get time for any spiritual practices at all when I am on tour! Fortunately I find the rhythm of the road extremely relaxing and contemplative, since we spend a lot of time in the car. So I frequently slip into meditations while Winter drives.
That, and the performing itself really is a spiritual practice for me. Aside from the fact that I am living my true will, most of my songs are about magic in some way, so to sing them is to invoke magic.
How do you stay enthusiastic? How do you put out so much power and love into your performances, night after night, on the road?
This is what I am meant to be doing. I feel so real, so authentic, doing this as my work, that the energy is just there. I think we lose our enthusiasm, our power and connection to love, when we are cut off from our authenticity in some way. When we are in alignment with our true desire, our energy is freed up and it is then that we feel boundless.
Do you approach writing for Sharon Knight / Neofolk Romantique differently than for Pandemonaeon? Do you ever start to write a song for one and before it’s done find yourself saying “no, that one belongs over here?”
Yep. All the time. Winter and I just write what inspires us, mix it together, and if it’s harder and darker it goes in the Pandemonaeon pile, and if it’s more acoustic, bright, or Celtic-folk in feel it goes in the Neofolk Romantique pile. And certainly there is some crossover too – not everything Neofolk is bright, just listen to “Well Below the Valley” or “Bold Marauder”! And likewise Pandemonaeon has its more delicate beauty. We just let the songs evolve and decide its best fit intuitively. Some songs end up in both projects. We have an acoustic version of “Queen of Shadows” which was originally a rocker on Pandemonaeon’s Dangerous Beauty album.
Your decision to give up your home and live on the road is a bold step, but you had to have been thinking about this for a long time. Do you see this a fulfillment of destiny, either as something you’re called to do or as something you’ve wanted to do for so long you finally made it happen?
It absolutely feels like a fulfillment of destiny. It is when I am most happy, most in my element. And often, it brings more financial reward than anything else I’ve done. Needless to say, I am eager to solidify and grow this aspect!
I should say we will still have a home base where our bed will be. So we won’t be entirely homeless, but we will be significantly pared down, and we will be on the road quite a lot more than we’ve been.
Do you expect to be playing more festivals, conventions and gatherings now?
I very much hope to. I apply for new events every week. I welcome any and all inquiries!
How do you use music in ritual? What suggestions would you give to ritualists as to how to incorporate music into their own rituals?
I use music in ritual frequently! All life is vibration, so we can use the vibration of voice, or of any instrument really, to find a resonance with that which we hope to invoke. When we bring ourselves into harmony with a magical force it makes it that much easier for that force to materialize in the same space as we are. I use music in ritual to open the portals, to court the numinous.
As far as suggestions, I would say, spend some time developing musical skill. Or at least have an anchor musician who can keep participants on track. Proper pitch and solid rhythm really help to create the resonance needed to step between worlds. When a group of singers get so in sync that they become “one voice” that’s when you really get that spine-tingling feeling of opening to the otherworldly. And we all want that in ritual! (at least, I do!)
How do you stay connected to nature when you’re in the car-hotel-bar-auditorium world of touring?
We are part of the soul of nature and if I am cut off from nature for too long, I start to get wacky. So staying connected on the road? So far, we play a lot of outdoor festivals. So that helps a lot. We don’t play bars. Or at least, very rarely. And the open road actually helps a lot. There are huge swathes of this country that are just open spaces, where you can drive and drive with the big sky above you and little else. We stop frequently as well, especially if we see something of beauty. There is so much gorgeous nature in this country!
Also, we do take days off. And almost invariably what I want to do on my day off is go explore the natural beauty of the area. We ask our local hosts to recommend spots.
Talk about your most recent album Neofolk Romantique: there must have been hundreds of traditional songs you could have put on that album – how did you choose them?
It was pretty easy to choose the traditionals, really. They are songs that I’ve had a relationship with over the years, and since I don’t really specialize in traditional music, I don’t actually have hundreds to choose from! These songs are a nod to my roots – I learned to play on traditional music, and it is also my cultural heritage – but really the direction I am headed is toward more original songs.
So many of your songs – both your own and the traditional songs you sing – are about the sea. What is it about the sea that calls to you? Does your love of the sea express itself in ways besides your music?
I’ve loved the sea for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure if I can explain why it calls to me, it just does. Something about the vast mystery of it, it echoes the great sea of consciousness, extending out into vast unknown worlds. It feels like a portal to me. I always feel open when I am near the sea.
Does my love of the sea express itself in other ways? Well… I’m fond of thinking of myself as a mermaid, every vacation I want to take includes the sea, and my lust for seafood is legendary.
Sea songs inevitably lead to pirate songs. What is it about pirates that so fascinate us? Do you have a favorite historical pirate? Or a favorite fictional pirate?
My favorite historical pirate is Grace O’Malley, and my favorite fictional pirate is – of course – Captain Jack Sparrow! I am very much a piratical wench, and always have been.
What is it about pirates that so fascinates us? You nail it pretty well in your blog post. To say it in my own words: in a society as corrupt as ours, as twisted and unhealthy in so many ways, to live outside of accepted convention is the honorable thing to do. We modern pirates live on our own terms. We craft our own destinies, we veer off the beaten path. We carve out a life of our own choosing from our wills, our passions, and a commitment to creating the world we want to live in. That’s what being a pirate (of the non-murderous variety) means to me.
“Fire in the Head” really grabbed me. You’ve talked about the process of writing that song – what strikes me is the contrast between the beauty of the music and the horror of the lyrics:
The screaming hag that rides the wind
will rip the soul right from your skin
the hollow hills will swallow you
and flay apart your mind
Does that imagery have a specific source?
The song itself is about a mountain in Wales, called Cadair Idris, which means the Chair of Idris. Idris is a giant who presides over the mountain. This mountain has a legend that if you sleep beneath its face, you will wake dead, mad, or a poet.
The image of the screaming hag riding the wind comes from a book Awen: the Quest of the Celtic Mysteries by Mike Harris. In it, he describes the legend of Cadair Idris, and conjures the awe and terror that must have been felt by the aspirant as he spent the night alone in pitch darkness, with the “screaming hag of the wind” howling around him.
Do you see this as something you either pass or you don’t? The lyrics present it as a process you go through – an initiation, an ordeal, suffering for your art.
This is very much a tale of initiation. We must confront our fears and limitations in order to pass the ordeal of initiation, in order to be born into a more exalted awareness – in this case, to be blessed with the poetic gift. I have always had a weakness for tales where we are utterly destroyed and remade, where we surrender everything we are in order to become mighty, slain and risen anew.
What’s your next project? Any idea when it will be ready? When will we see something new from Pandemonaeon?
I have several in the works all at once! Thorn and I keep threatening to record another chant collection, that will get underway in a few weeks, and will probably take a few months to complete. Winter and I are also recording another album of all original material under the “Sharon Knight” name. That should be completed by the first half of next year.
Pandemonaeon really needs some new songs, and we have a goal to have four new songs out by Hexenfest, a magic-based music and dance festival we co-produce in April. As to when Pandemonaeon will have another full album… hopefully by the end of 2014. Alas, it doesn’t pay our bills so it tends to get the back burner.
I also have a body of work called Sonic Alchemy, wherein I craft meditations based on a sound therapy called Acutonics, which uses sound to shift stuck energy patterns. I’ve got three of these halfway finished. So… a lot of work for me in 2014!
Thanks so much!
You are so welcome!
You can find Sharon, her blog and her music at her website http://www.sharonknight.net/