Talk Show Host: 013: Beauty Queen Autopsy

Welcome to a different world. Sometimes I’m not a particular fan of side-projects, mainly as in my view they often detract from the main event – but here, with Beauty Queen Autopsy, this is some way away from what Matt Fanale (of Caustic) and Erica Mulkey (of Unwoman) might do on their own. A trip into the darker reaches of the imagination.

Matt Fanale and Erica Mulkey
Beauty Queen Autopsy

234: Tracks (June 2015)

Needless to say, I was curious to see how this all came about, particularly the lyrics. So, I threw some questions their way, and the results were interesting to say the least – much like the album, which is well worth your time.

“I’ve been asked a few times if it’s odd writing in a “woman’s voice”, but honestly I think everything I’m writing about is universal. It might be interpreted differently if a man sang it, but heartbreak, loss, and lust can’t be claimed to be only for one gender.” What was the genesis of this project? On the face of it, it seems an unexpected match.

Matt: I thought up the idea of Beauty Queen Autopsy in 2008, so per usual for me it’s been a long gestating project (not as far back as Prude, mind you). Erica had asked me to collaborate on an Attrition cover doing some backing vocals and I got it in my head that a project where I wrote the lyrics, she sang, and she and I worked on the music together would be a lot of fun. We hammered out a few amorphous demos but our schedules got all crazy and BQA went on the back burner for a long time. We’d still talk about it here and there though, but when I was working on the Caustic Coprophagia/Consummatia EP I started working on a track called Eyes Pried Wide, the sound of which caused a huge lightbulb to go over my head. I wrote out a few tracks with my scratch vox (I think Birthday Pony was the first one) and sent them to Erica to see if this could be “The Beauty Queen Autopsy Sound”, and she was really enthusiastic about it, too. After that songs really started flowing out of me.

Then we did a demo EP, we did a single, and we did an album. So there you go. How were songs composed? Presumably the distance between your home locations meant there was some bouncing of ideas between you.

Matt: The music and lyrics all come from me, but Erica has full veto power if she’s not into the track. Fortunately only a couple ideas weren’t her cup of tea (and, in hindsight, she was dead on about them), so it was all in all a pretty seamless process. We both have to agree when everything is officially done, but again it’s been a dream. I get more frustrated working on my solo stuff than anything in BQA.

Erica: Matt would email me me a demo with the music and his voice, and a version with just instrumentals for me to record my voice over, and the lyrics. I would figure out how to make the songs work for my voice, and record myself in my home studio, usually about 2-3 weeks after he sent me the tracks. I’d send him bounces of my voice and any harmonies I’d worked out, and usually also my own demo mixdown. He ended up using most of the harmonies I recorded. He’d send me his own mixdown, though of course for the actual album we had Tom Shear do the mixes. There is a general sense of extraordinary sexual frankness in the lyrics and delivery – one where it appears that the woman is very much in control, in the main. Matt: I have to confess I was surprised to find that you had written the lyrics – was a misdirection part of the aim here? Erica: what was your take on the lyrics initially?

Matt: Ahahaha, not at all. It’s just me expressing myself more through a character, but since I think a lot of women and men feel pretty much the same way about sex it wasn’t a stretch to convey it with Erica on vocals. It’s all universal, in my opinion. There’s an actual arc to the entire album, as it starts out where Erica’s character is in control, she loses that control, and then she rises up and becomes EXTREMELY in control. She effectively becomes a female Lothario, or Lotharia. It’s almost a plotline throughout, which wasn’t originally intended, but given that Erica is this character throughout the album it actually made total sense once all the pieces of the puzzle were in front of me.

Erica: my overall impression has always been, going back to the first song I officially provided vocals for, Caustic’s Orchid, how the hell does he write so well from the perspective of a sexually confident woman? I like the sexualness of the words a lot – for me, I wouldn’t perform Unwoman songs, which are really personal for me, in a flirtatious sexy way, though that’s a side of my personality in real life, so it’s actually really great to be able to act out that side of me, in some ways more easily because I don’t write the words. It’s an acting gig, for me, but one that comes very very naturally.

Matt: In a sense it’s an acting gig for both of us lyrically, but what makes it work I think is that we’re both pulling from our own lives in creating all of the songs. It’s real to us. Also, what was the inspiration for these songs? Are they based on personal experience, or are they a persona invented for the scenes depicted?

Matt: Some of the songs were based on personal experiences, generally from memories of when I was younger and everything about relationships hit me like a ton of bricks emotionally, or experiences that I adapted for the story in the song. Birthday Pony is about seeing someone that’s really cool who you’re attracted to that you don’t know and fantasizing about how great you’d be together even though you don’t know them. It’s all so perfect in your mind, but in reality it’s completely different. That was based on a personal experience in college, but I adapted it and put a lot more fictionalized backstory into it.

I’ve been asked a few times if it’s odd writing in a “woman’s voice”, but honestly I think everything I’m writing about is universal. It might be interpreted differently if a man sang it, but heartbreak, loss, and lust can’t be claimed to be only for one gender. There is a distinct, darkened room (or “after dark”) vibe to the album – and one influence that springs to mind is Massive Attack (and in particular the sensual depths of Mezzanine) – what were the musical (and literary?) influences in composing the album?

Matt: This is where I’ve been able to have fun. Like anyone I love a lot of music, and two particularly big bands for me are Pulp and Suede. I’ve been huge into Britpop and a lot of triphop forever. The early concept for BQA was that the Lotharia character is basically just a female Jarvis Cocker, with a little Brett Anderson in there for good measure (and Liz Phair, and PJ Harvey, and Kathleen Hanna, and and and). The original inspiration for the music was everyone from EMA and The Kills and Jesus and Mary Chain, so even though I’ve been seeing a lot of reviews mentioning how “industrial” and “goth” the album is, the inspirations don’t reflect that at all. That’s not to say that opinion is wrong, but I was dipping heavily into a new pool of artists I adore that never fit with Caustic. I’m a huge trip-hop fan though, as evidenced on Contaminate Me (Dirty Thoughts). It’s bedroom music– a little wrong, a little playful, and a lot sexy. The album was funded by way of a Kickstarter model – a method I understand you’ve both used before in your own projects. Do you think that this is the way forward now for smaller-scale artists to get the support they need? What advice would you give to new and aspiring artists now entering the industry?

Erica: I’ve done nine successful Kickstarter campaigns, at this point. Crowdfunding is a fantastic tool for artists who have proven track records of actually getting things done, and big enough fanbases to support what they’re trying to accomplish (easier if your goal is $1k than if it’s $100k!). But before I ever ran a Kickstarter campaign I’d released 3 full-length albums myself, and had collected thousands of emails and twitter followers by playing tons of live shows as Unwoman and with bigger acts. So, one of the many many pieces of advice I’d give to aspiring artists is, don’t rely on crowdfunding too soon because you run the risk of promising something you can’t deliver if you’ve never done it before and risking your reputation forever. HOWEVER it’s also very important not to give up, not to wait to be discovered or given permission to do what you do — you just may have to actually pay some dues first.

Matt: I think this is another way to do it, and it’s worked really well for both Erica and I on our solo stuff. It’s not for everyone, and like Erica mentioned you have to be in the right place as an artist for it actually to work. It takes some financial stress off you, but at the same time fulfilling all of your obligations to backers and making their faith in you WORTH IT is a big deal that neither Erica nor myself take lightly. It’s maybe not THE way of the future, but for us it’s A way of the future. Following the completion of this album, what are the future plans? Is there the prospect of more BQA material – and do live shows figure at all?

Matt: I think we’re both definitely down with doing more BQA, but we need to see how we want to do it. The first album is a story in many ways, so we need to see if we want to continue telling this character’s story or maybe pull a True Detective and talk about someone else for an album, or maybe just write a bunch of cool songs and not overthink it. Mostly we want to get the word out on the album to as many people as possible. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive, so I’m feeling great about everything.

As for live shows, probably not for a bit. My wife and I are expecting our second child in September and, well, that’s a bit more important than hitting the road at the moment. And by “a bit” I mean “100% more important”. We definitely want to play out again though – we had an amazing first show in November. What’s going on with your respective own projects at the moment?

Erica: I just released a dark ambient album under the artist name No Little Sparrow and as Unwoman, I’m currently making 1-2 cover songs every month, supported by and exclusively for Bandcamp and Patreon backers.

Matt: I’m currently just finishing up the new Caustic, which is called Industrial Music and will be out later this year on Negative Gain. Other than that I’m just going to be working my ass off to get all of the BQA and Caustic Kickstarter premiums done and looking/sounding as good as possible.

Lotharia is out now.

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