Inspired by her youthful days in Clowns for Christ, Hayley Thompson-King presents her “Sodom and Gomorrah concept album,” Psychotic Melancholia. As metal as that sounds, these are in fact the basic ingredients for a rich and complex “psychedelic country” album.
Thompson-King has carried the seeds for Psychotic Melancholia, her debut full-length album, for quite some time. She describes herself as a child who often questioned the role of women in Old Testament Bible studies. (Her tenure in Clowns for Christ, a youth troupe that acted out parables, did not last long.) “My parents weren't even super religious,” she recalls. “I was very curious about religions as a child. I'm not a very religious person now. But I was really inspired by these questions I had as a kid about all of the women I had learned about who were considered really wicked and evil, but upon revisiting their stories they just seemed really smart and were asking really solid questions. So I was inspired by these women. I thought they really strong and exciting and that I could put myself in their shoes.” Her intellectual curiosity is evident in earthy songs that are equally influenced by Romantic art, opera, and her upbringing in Sebastian, Florida, where she grew up riding and showing American Quarter Horses. Thompson-King sees the album as an amalgamation of all of these: her classical training and Southern roots: “I grew up riding horses. My dad's a team worker. I grew up in a truck with vintage country music. It definitely influenced me and I love being from the South.” But if there's one unifying theme on Psychotic Melancholia, it's the dismantling of false idols.
Thompson-King explains that her songs often begin outside of herself, but ultimately reflect upon her inner experience. “I like to write about real things that happen in my life. I think I'm always writing about my relationships, like with my folks, the other people whom I love. It's easy for me to write about myself if I'm looking at a third party, so that I can look at myself as another character.” This tendency can be seen in the opening track “Large Hall, Slow Decay,” which is a rootsy diss track directed at a former bandmate whom she had looked up to prior to working her. (“Long Hall, Slow Decay” is a reference to the reverb effect the singer constantly demanded during rehearsals and live performances.) Thompson-King, however, needs no effects to amplify her vocal abilities. Trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, Thompson-King joins the ranks of operatically trained rock singers like Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson. Her training is brought to bear in the power of “Lot's Wife,” a backwoods road-house scorcher that re-imagines the Biblical character as a woman who couldn't understand her husband's directive and turns back, once more, to watch the city she loves burn. (What else would they listen to in Sodom?) In “Soul Kisser,” a meditation on the midwifery and violence of the creative process evoking Goya's Saturn Devouring His Young, Thompson-King's vibrato and emotion create a temporary calm in the tempestuous guitars of the album. The band closes the album with an alternate arrangement of Schumann's “Wehmut” (or, in English, the album's namesake: “Melancholia.”)
The album is in fact a labor of love six months in the making. Thompson-King and longtime friend, collaborator, guitarist, and producer Pete Weiss holed up in his Athens, VT studio between October and March of 2016. According to Thompson-King, Weiss helped develop her “baby” songs into fully fleshed adults. The pair obsessively tweaked songs, tested out instruments to use, and various mic set-ups to create the perfect soundscape. While the pair ultimately used digital recording techniques (unfortunately, Weiss explains, it proved too difficult to edit the tracks as they had been recorded live) the band wanted to create a live-sounding album like Dave Cobb's. “We weren't trying to do something that was perfect. We were trying to do something very human and very real and wild. We wanted it to be emotional and exciting.” Keeping in that spirit, the band limited the number and types of takes they did on each track an an effort to preserve the album's organic feeling.
Thompson-King's artistry has been widely recognized by the Boston community. She currently receives a grant from the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, and The Somerville Arts Council to live as an Artist in Residence. Along with Weiss, she is joined by Chris Maclachlan of legendary Boston new-wave band Human Sexual Response on bass and Jonathan Ulman, declared 2016's “Session Player of the Year” by the Boston Music Awards, on drums. Thompson-King still sings opera and teaches voice lessons, but she feels a strong sense of place as a singer-songwriter.
Reflecting on her departure from her classical training, Thompson-King notes that “As a singer, I knew that I had this big voice and I wanted to use it in a really serious way but I wanted to write my own material.” However, she sees a connection between her music and opera: “it's super emotional; [it] tells these stories that are common and human but in a really big way, which is what I'm doing now.”
Note: Thompson-King's PR Company, Baby Robot Media, asked me to write the press release for this album. Since this is more or less what I've written anyway, I'm featuring the album with my draft here. They've tweaked it a bit since but if the words seem familiar and you've read more than one review of this excellent album, that's why!