Karyn Crisis is as intensely spiritual as she is musical. For thirteen years was the dynamic and ferocious frontwoman for the experimental metal band Crisis. In early interviews she was often asked who was the woman who performed “duets” on Crisis’ early albums; her death metal vocals were often mistaken for a male singer’s performance. More recently, she has become involved with Ephel Duath, an Italian avant-garde metal band founded by guitarist and songwriter Davide Tiso in 1998 (Davide is also Karyn’s husband). Ephel Duath‘s latest EP, On Death and Cosmos, will be released by Agonia Records on August 14th 2012 in North America. Karyn is also working on a solo record. You can listen to a new track here. Karyn is also an accomplished shaman and healer, with an intense connection to the spiritual world. I’m honoured to have her interview as part of the Girls Don’t Like Metal series.
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What was your gateway into heavy metal and aggressive music? How did it enter your life, and eventually become an obsession and an important part of your career?
I stumbled into metal, not because I was a fan who had a knowledge of the genre, but because I was more like pure innocence forced into a brutal world that wounded me and turned me into a wild animal. The music was my way of transforming my suffering into empowerment, into an unbreakability, by travelling within to the darkest places and finding the light.
I grew up just outside Chicago, which had seriously wild college radio stations and phenomenal live venues and record shops, so I was exposed to noise bands and imports during my middle school and into my high school years. I had a Korg synthesizer and a hollow body Gibson copy I bought at a thrift shop, and I began writing music with them. As I was finding a way to express my pent-up emotions, I was listening to z’ev, and bands from Japan and Germany who were doing out-there organic industrial music which could be categorized as “experimental” I suppose. Most influential on my singing style was hearing Einstuerzende Neubauten. Simultaneously, I was listening to Cocteau Twins and Sugarcubes, so those female singers also influenced the melodic side of my vocals.
I didn’t have a knowledge of heavy music when I was buying vinyl in Chicago and other Indiana suburbs. I bought albums based on artwork, and they ended up being the types of bands I listed above. I began writing my own music, and since I only had a guitar and synth, I built other percussive instruments to add to the mix. Music was an obsession, but I didn’t understand where this obsession came from, and I didn’t particularly like the music I was creating. I just knew I was compelled to write it, and I accepted that this must be the way I was supposed to write. I was not able to control my process, but would find myself in it, and listen to the results much as an outsider.
My expressive needs, over time, increased in emotional capacity. The quieter, brooding and mysterious music I was creating wasn’t enough, I needed a more explosive outlet. The noise music I listened to wasn’t enough either. Naturally, I was seeking out metal, but I didn’t know where to look. So, interestingly enough, the metal found me! In the early ’90s, I was renting a room from a NYC photographer, and I was making music on my 4-track in my room. Occasionally I’d ask to borrow his knives to use as instruments. He then introduced me to someone in Crisis when they were looking for a female singer, and they asked me to audition. The rest is history.
I wouldn’t say metal became an obsession because I’m a terrible fan. I’m not the kind of person who collects music or researches it and even listens to much music at all. Heavy music was a survival tool for me, a way to both journey inside myself in a raw, exposed way that also had to be shared with an audience.
I suppose my style was more about the magic of the emotion, and emotion is fluid and ever-changing. It taught me that one can’t be “angry” all the time, that is merely denial of other emotions. Above all I am driven by the internal integrity to be true and real.
What is your particular approach to heavy metal vocals and to singing in general? Do you think there is a difference between someone who is a singer and someone who is a frontwoman/band leader?
My approach to music and art is similar: I visualize then I channel. Writing lyrics has always been a peculiar ritual for me and is about following a trail of breadcrumb hints rather than a deciding to write about a particular subject matter.
Sometimes I bring a concept about something to the center of my thoughts, but more often than not I just open my intent to write. Then, a word will often pop into my mind, and then I’ll flip through a very old thesaurus and follow its trail there, which often leads me to other words and synonyms and phrases, which all open up into lyrics. I can’t really get more specific than that, because the lyrics do really write themselves, and I am just the channel. But the process always takes me on a journey down a path where I can’t see the next step ahead though I am walking through the experience. It reveals itself to me, and I just have to trust and keep my pen on the paper and when it’s finished, the trail and breadcrumbs stop.
Writing vocals: I read the words, and observe as the vocals organize themselves against the music in my mind. Often, they choose notes that I haven’t reached before, or low tones that I haven’t tried. It’s always a challenge, and I never know if I’ll be able to sing them aloud! My voice has been my best teacher. So many times I’ve been asked how I developed my vocal style, and the truth is my voice developed me! Both, as a singer and as a person, my voice has always told me what to do.
In fifth grade, the school was preparing to put on a huge, end-of-the-year play. I was extremely reclusive and antisocial, but for some reason my inner voice told me to try out for the male lead role! I showed up in the audition room, practicing a Mr. T-like growly voice. The boys were teasing me about in the coatroom, until I auditioned and got the part! Everyone wondered how I got that voice to come out of a petite little girl.
When I was in my teen years, writing songs alone with my 4-track, I’d spend time doing what I called stretching my voice: singing along to (melodic) male and female fronted bands of different types. Usually these singers had abilities far outside my own range, but my voice told me to practice this way.
Following my inner voice carried over into my singing style as well. When I listen to my voice, it tells me exactly what to do.
You have contributed guest appearances on a wide variety of projects, from Giant Squid to Voivod. What draws you to specific projects?
I push myself to extremes in all I do. I test my limits; I want to know my capabilities and boundaries, and constantly challenge myself to exceed what I’ve done before. This is my nature, it’s not something I deliberately work towards. I go where I feel is right, I work with what feels right for me, and that passion to know and to experience takes me many diverse places, dark and light. I have no idea how that comes across, but for me the important thing is to experience as much as I can on this planet, in accord with my inner desires.
Like many people who have made heavy music a central part of their lives, your partner, Davide Tiso, is also a metal musician and founder of
Ephel Duath. Was is a mutual love for heavy metal that initially drew you together?
It was something much larger and more mystical that brought Davide and me together under the guise of music. When we tell the story to others it sounds like a fairy tale, or something unbelievable.
After a long break from music, I decided I wanted to work on a solo album, and a friend overseas had offered to help. In addition, he invited Davide (whom I didn’t know at the time) into the project to add guitars. Davide reached out to me via email, and from our first exchange, I intuitively felt there was something unusual about our connection. Because of the time difference between the U.S. and Italy, he’d often send his emails to me at 2 am my time. I’d immediately wake from sleeping and open my inbox and see that one minute earlier he’d sent his email. After months of organizing, an arrangement was made for me to fly to Tuscany and stay three months to work on the album.
While the project in that form fell apart due to musical differences, Davide and I remained in a little guest house amongst Tuscan grape vineyards protected by a witch spirit we met there. She taught me daily in the mornings, where I’d channel her information while in a particular room of the house, then Davide and I would travel around Italy. She protected us and cleared a path for us to go back to the U.S. and remain together in response to our wanting to be together. We returned to the U.S. after one month with the plan to record my solo album, but instead we got married and began our life together.
Is it challenging or freeing to work in a band with your partner? How do you negotiate the way that your creative and intimate lives intertwine?
Davide and I are like the pieces of a two-piece puzzle. Each of us are a complete world unto ourselves, and we’re also different scenes of the same picture. We’re fueled by our creative pursuits individually, but we happen to be deeply in love with each other and in deep respect of one another. Our relationship isn’t based on need, it’s more like within the company of each other we feel home. We understand that each of us has an intuitive way of creating, and for each of us our intuition is right and correct and special, so we don’t try to get in the middle of that relationship with our intuition.
So working together is a wonderful and easy, but challenging at the right times, in the right ways which help us grow.
Perhaps most importantly, Davide is a consummate professional. He’s always striving for excellence within himself, and at the same time loves to support the creativity and potential he sees in others. In that way he is very nurturing, and expresses trust in the best others have to offer. Because of that I feel supported and valued as a member of Ephel Duath. He trusts my way of doing things, but can also sense when I am being too hard on myself.
Also, he offers a refreshing attitude towards his music: that it deserves to be done right regardless of obstacles in the way. If the songs need huge production, they will have it one way or another. If the album needs a certain level of musicianship, he will cold-email his favorite bass player in the entire music scene, for example. While he’s quiet, polite, and unassuming around others, he also believes in his own music enough to not do what most of us do: feel defeated if the public doesn’t love us, nor feel small if he doesn’t know the right people to help him. He just trusts. I got used to just settling for time crunches and financial difficulties, and he just allows himself to dream big and not get bogged down by possible obstacles in the way. That is deeply inspiring for me.
On offering each other objective direction, for example, I felt he was resisting working on a new Ephel Duath album (before On Death and Cosmos). I instinctively knew that he needed to get back to writing that material and that it would bring us together musically. So I did what I could to encourage, to help him separate the negative feelings he had for the music business and inevitable member troubles from his own music writing process, because he really was born to make music and is unhappy when not writing and playing.
Once started writing for Ephel Duath again, the songs just began to flow through him, almost faster than he could keep up! I’m happy to help create an environment of support around him and, if needed, feedback, because it makes me feel a sense of peace when he’s working with his immense talent.
On my side of things, I was worried about doing his songs justice vocally. Ephel Duath has a history and a singer that fans knew, and Davide was used to writing lyrics and vocal parts. I didn’t want to change his process nor the relationship between the vocals and music. So I asked him to write the vocals parts, and I gave certain input there helping to get things to their highest level. He encouraged me to appreciate my voice for once in my life! As a result, I was able to growl my way to new, more refined places in a way that were at the same time more raw. And I found a new love for my voice.
On the whole, our music/art/lyrics writing is a part of who we are, so it is also a daily part of our lives. It’s wonderfully freeing to be in a relationship with someone who feels a sense of creative purpose and drive, a need to create, and to know we don’t need permission from the other to take time out from part of the day to create. There’s also constant creativity/exploration/seeking in our environment which makes things actively interesting and never lacking in passion.
Tell us about your forthcoming solo album. What is the inspiration and the drive behind this project? What can we expect?
The album is entitled Salem’s Wounds, and in many ways is a tribute to my Spirit Witch Guide whom I met in Tuscany and who still teaches me today. Musically, I’d say it is a continuation of the music I first made on my own. I don’t consider myself anything but a clumsy musician, but am compelled to write these songs. I have a more awakened understanding of myself now than I did in my musical past, when I was burdened by cyclical rage and despair. While musically and lyrically I would create empowering expressions that transformed my inner pain, in regular, waking life I was dysfunctional. Because of all the changes I’ve put myself through, I still see darkness, but I am not touched by it in the same way. While Ephel Duath offers one side of my vocal abilities, my solo songs will offer quite another.
Your spiritual life is clearly very important to you, as you are very open about the fact that you practice witchcraft and shamanism. How do you think these spiritual paths entwine with heavy metal?
This is a great question! Spirit can work through people in all sorts of lifestyles. Being born a natural medium and psychically open, I found life on earth to be confusing. While I intuitively trusted my connection with Spirit, specifically through my art and music and dreams and goals, I found it difficult to connect with people. On one hand I was trusting, and on the other, insecure and depressed because sharing my experiences was met with criticism. I began to hide part of myself under pressure from family and other adults like teachers who told me to “try and fit in,” that I was weird, wrong, strange.
As a young adult, music came into my life and offered me a way to speak about my truth, my wounds, and have an audience willing to listen. That audience was full of other sensitive, outcast people, and many of them were inspiring to me because they built a lifestyle around their supposedly weird, strange interests and ideas rather than hiding those interests. Exposing my deepest, darkest secrets was inspiring to them, empowering to me, and gave me the opportunity, over time, to reconcile my inner self with the outer world.
This is also something that I think is a great strength about many metal fans. Whether or not they are into psychic abilities, they follow their heart, and the music offers a positive release through facing one’s darkness. Conversely, I’ve met many people involved in many types of healing and psychic modalities, and they often greet me with judgment about my appearance and my musical lifestyle. They can be similar to Christians who often have an “us verses them” mentality. In Mediumship, part of the technique of connecting with Spirit who has a higher vibration that we do on earth involves raising our vibration. Listening to music, thinking of someone you love and concentrating on these things raise your vibration. For me, some of the most evidential readings I did for others was after listening to Cattle Decapitation! Their new album makes me happy, and therefore raises my vibration, though a teacher I had cautioned against listening to “angry music.” There’s bullshit everywhere, and being spiritual doesn’t mean wearing white robes and sitting around an acoustic guitar in denial.
Do you ever draw upon out-of-body experiences or clairvoyance in your performance or writing?
On stage, I often experience being out of my body. Thankfully, I shared my space with Spirit who had my highest good in mind. Being out of body can be a dangerous affair, however. As one of my favorite mediums said, “If you’re not in your body, then who is?” It’s a common experience for sensitive people to hold the emotions of others in their bodies, which can feel overwhelming and confusing. Many people think that they need to be out in space to have a spiritual or supernatural experience, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
What is it about heavy metal that you think often has it pigeonholed as a distinctly masculine genre?
I think people should get over the battle of men vs. women in metal. What drew me to metal was its brevity, boldness, fearlessness, big loud sounds, triumphant feelings, and dealing with anger/rage/sadness/frustration in a creative and productive way. It allows other people to feel a release and relief from their own problems through the universal language of music. Masculine often means: outward, exploration, conquering, engaging in battle. I haven’t felt that from female-generated metal.
In my opinion, women haven’t, on a whole, found their own authenticity in metal in the way that riot grrls have, for example. I think women are finding their own collective voice in electronic music for sure, but in metal, not so much. Beautiful, opera-like vocals and flowing gowns just don’t make sense in metal to me. While corsets are cool and I own several, it’s not possible to sing properly, let alone powerfully, wearing one. And I think that’s fine for those who like it! The metal scene allowed me a landscape of music to find my true voice and express my saving grace in this life: my primal scream. Being a wounded person and raging against the world, metal helped me feel it’s ok to express my deepest darkest wounds and somehow build a bridge between me and men, whom I didn’t trust, and in turn, empower myself.
You bring incredible strength, as well as a great deal of positive feminine energy to your writing and performances. Are you attempting to create a new image of the powerful feminine in the metal scene? Is this a conscious choice?
I feel confident in saying that people who know me probably think of me as a person, rather than as a woman.
In every aspect of my life, I rarely look outside myself for inspiration or comparisons. I am intensely driven to follow my own path, and am keenly aware that I am one of those people meant to discover and learn alone. I am the guy who goes on a vision quest for days at the top of a mountain until he is revealed some truth or system. I have always had an unstoppable desire to know, to learn, to discover through experience, to transform, to shed my skin repeatedly to reveal a stronger, better me.
I’ve always looked to my music and art as intelligent entities that knew what they were doing with me, and it was an agreement: I’d call to them for release from this painful life and I chose to trust their intelligence above all else, feeling they were a part of the power of the universe. When I first joined a band, Crisis, I didn’t realize it would create a dialog, I didn’t realize it would inspire others. I was just trying to be my own hero and carry on, serving my creative work, and daring to go where it was taking me. I think about my gender only when I am confronted with it by others.
Do you ever find the metal scene a challenging place to operate in, as a woman?
It has absolutely been a challenge, also because at the start I was a shy, introverted person, and the music business is tough. It used to be much more tough because it operated in real life, in real time and not online. I had to carve out my own way and let people know they must treat me with respect. This meant that if people didn’t want to treat me respectfully, which they didn’t at first sight, I had to give them reason to.
I can tell you that in 1993, when Crisis was the only female-fronted metal band touring out there, rarely was a woman at a show, so I was a strange sight for some men. I was truly breaking new ground out there, and on a very street level. The scenes across the U.S. were much more violent and raw, and I had to be ready to fight just like the guys. I didn’t have a manager to protect me or put any distance between me and fans or other bands in hostile situations. Guys didn’t know what to think of me, especially in the early ’90s when I wore dresses and combat boots.
But once I was onstage, they got it. They could see we were of similar emotions. They’d start headbanging and knew there was a connection. But there were also times where guys would grab my ass or microphone, or yell, “Show us your tits!” and in those cases I had to break a few noses in the crowd or yell back from the stage with more profanity than they ever heard and managed to put them all in their places. I knew I had entered the boys club and had to play by those rules. In the early days, guys in metal and hardcore crowds didn’t believe in chivalry for me, and I certainly had to fight knuckles-to-flesh at times. There were even times when the club’s security wouldn’t let me in for my own sound check because they didn’t believe I was in a band, or you’d find me in a face-to-face screaming match with some fat promoter who didn’t want to pay the band. There were plenty of male fans of other bands we toured with who’d find me alone at the merch table and tell me they were going to beat me up.
What advice would you share with someone who wants to make a career our of performing heavy metal and thriving within that community?
I’m not one to ask about thriving within a community, being a solitary person. But, whatever your passion, trust yourself and your instincts. Don’t be too defensive defensive way, because that can actively keep out intuitive information that can help guide you in the right direction for you, but really trust yourself instead of relying on the opinions of others. This agreement of trusting yourself will help you know whom else to trust, and help you stand strong in the face on inevitable competition and negative feedback. To thrive, follow your passion, be true to who you are, and tell your story!