Interview: Heather Christian

*Originally written for Exeunt*

It’s difficult to find the adjectives to describe Heather Christian’s extraordinary voice. “Like an emphysemic angel,” some have said. Others prefer describing it as “a crazed rubber band”.Variety suggested that “Christian howls like a werewolf with a voice made of molasses”. Whatever your preferred descriptor, it’s impossible for anyone with ears to deny that this songstress owns a voice of staggering quality. Her varied and extensive CV as a songwriter for her group The Arbornauts and as a theatre-composer is therefore unsurprising. In the UK, she’s perhaps best known for her work as Miss Atomic in The TEAM’s Mission Drift, which took the Edinburgh Fringe by storm in 2011 and triumphed at the National Theatre’s Shed last summer. Her “big European adventure” this year is of a similarly American flavour, as she takes on the challenge of playing Curley’s Wife in and composing the music for West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Due to the book’s status as a set-text in American schools, Christian was highly familiar with it before she began work, though she admits she finds it “very difficult to get through”. Steinbeck’s tale of two migrant ranch workers is, she suggests, “a testament to the human spirit”. But why is this a text which is relevant to today, beyond its background of a society laden by depression? “The Depression was a period in American history that really formed us,” Christian tells me. “We were founded by a country full of people who really identify Home – with a capital ‘H’ – as something which is yours. The ‘dream’ of George and Lennie to build up a state and have this little plot of land and have chickens – this is the American Dream.” As American culture and neoliberal capitalism has spread, then, it’s unsurprising that we see a lot of ourselves, as Brits, in this rendering of society.

Christian – who speaks to me during a lunch-break before tech week gets underway – talks with passion and authority about American history. This, she admits, is down to the fact thatMission Drift required a lot of research about the nation’s past: “American history is just a huge ball of whack, it’s all tangled and we come from so many different places”. This work, inevitably, has fed into some of her thinking about the music for Of Mice And Men, though her approach has been vastly different. Where The TEAM’s show became “a series of hymns” because “it does feel sort of holy and a bit too close-to-the-nerve to talk about money and economics,” the “hell” of the farm in this play has to be compared to “something big and glorious. You have to be looking out from the mire in order to realise you’re stuck.”

In the music itself, then, Christian is “trying to establish hope and the big beating heart of the landscape,” especially seeing as the long sections of descriptive prose Steinbeck wrote in his novel were left out when he created the stage version. To evoke this feeling musically, Christian went “straight to the prologue” in an attempt to summon up a feeling that would supplement the text. “There’s rivers and wide rolling hills and a huge sky – if you’ve never been to this part of America it’s vast, it’s incredible and beautiful. But you feel simultaneously that you could be the king of everything and that you are a tiny cog in nothing. So I wanted to start the play with that feeling.” Throughout the play, she has written the music to work in three concurrent strands: non-textual material; songs composed as “patchwork-quilts of Steinbeck’s texts”; and one or two numbers “inspired by the time period that I’ve tried to muscle into something that sounds like Steinbeck”.

As someone who is musically challenged and pretty much tone-deaf, I ask how creating songs for plays differs to creating songs in studios. “You have to leave holes in theatre,” Christian points out, because “there’s just a lot more information that is not sonic in a play.” On the other hand, “songwriting is a three-minute medium. So you’re writing a three-minute play, essentially.” I note that, when recently listening to both the Mission Drift soundtrack and her debut record Cabinet in quick succession, the difference in approach was clear. Christian explains: “In writing an entire score for a piece, you don’t have to get to the resolution, especially for Mission Drift because I was primarily dealing with the poetic language of the emotional experience that was going on. So lyrically – that’s what we’re talking about the difference is – lyrically, the Mission Drift score is incomplete without the text. Lyrically, Cabinet is closer to complete.”

Though Christian originally trained in musical theatre, she says that it made her “miserable” due to the fact its “huge potential” was lost due to the medium’s refusal to evolve. “Music is sort of the most aggressive form of dramaturgy that you could ever put on top of a play; it’s so much information. Instead I feel that musicals tend to just give you too much information. I feel that what I respond to as an audience member is when the play leaves holes for me to have my own experience be fed by it, my own piddling little life – you have to be a little vague.” To have a better chance of intangibly affecting people, Christian therefore tries to create music which veers away from the beaten track: “My main soapbox is about the use of the abstract in music in plays. I wish that people were using music in the multitude of different ways that it can be used.”

A performer Christian once spoke to at experimental theatre club La Mama in New York suggested that this lack of avant-garde musicals was partly down to the AIDS epidemic, which affected a large proportion of people who were investigating the medium in the late 60s and early 70s. In America, she argues, there is also a huge focus on what will sell tickets and trying to second guess audiences. Though this may sound similar to the UK’s current cultural trends, Christian suggests that “it’s different here. There’s still a culture, and you’re still – to a certain extent – raising your children to be audience members. We have de-funded arts so much in the States, and de-prioritised it and commodified it so much that this new generation of kids don’t even know theatre exists beyond the Christmas play”. And though we in the UK may get curmudgeonly and angry about the present state of arts funding, I’m somehow vaguely roused by Christian’s final remarks. “I prefer to do theatre here – I know that makes me a bad American – but I’d rather do it here”. America’s loss is Europe’s gain.

Photo: Rachel Chavkin

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