In one of my favourite conversations I’ve had for the #DLGRL project (we are still on Facebook but not Instagram! But follow my personal IG for updates), I spoke to Johanna Hedva, the incredibly creative and intelligent mind behind one of my absolute favourite releases from this year – Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House. We chat about mysticism and ritual, dealing with grief through creativity, and how heavy music might help us do away with the gender binary. Read on, and give their album a listen! (photo credit: Oscar Rohleder)
The day I meet Johanna Hedva, it’s swelteringly hot in London. I’m sitting in front of my laptop with a sheen of sweat over my face, and find myself face to face with an incredibly well-dressed person, with thick-rimmed glasses and countless books on the wall behind them. I immediately feel underdressed. “I really enjoy the romance of being too hot to do anything. You just have to lay around – I love it.” they say, adjusting chunky metal necklace with perfectly manicured nails.
We immediately kick things off by jumping into the proverbial deep end. “When my mother died, writing and performing these songs was the only thing I could do. It was the only thing that actually made any sense. The thing about grief, for me at least, is that it completely rendered the rest of my life, not unbearable, but very strange. And incomprehensible. Having to go to work, pay my bills or feed myself, or any of that shit became very difficult. In the face of death, the structuring of daily life goes from very important to completely meaningless. Playing these songs over and over again was really the only thing that made sense at the time.”
It’s no secret that Mx. Hedva is entranced by the mystical. “When somebody dies, that relationship is profoundly changed. My mother and I had a very difficult relationship and so, with her death, something really profound happened which I don’t think could have happened without her dying. But also, working with your ancestors is at the core of the work. In Korean culture as well, for example – the concept of han. Something which is similar to intergenerational trauma – by healing yourself or finding a way to live, you’re not just healing yourself but your whole ancestral line.
“So I guess there was some kind of element of that in writing these songs about my mother. I felt like I could embody different perspectives or our relationships that I really couldn’t have otherwise, in life. I felt like I was communicating with her in a different language than the one we used when trying to talk to each other in these bodies.”
I was thrilled to find Johanna’s music listed in Bandcamp under the tag “hag blues”. It conjures up images of something mystical and primal as well as linking them inextricably with the magical traditions of the past. I couldn’t help myself but ask about this word. “I’ve always really appreciated artists that invent wonderful names for what their genre is like – one of my favourites was Moor Mother and her use of “slave ship blues”. I feel like there is an element of what I’m doing that is just the blues. I really like how the voice – not the singing, but the actual voice of the blues is this really wretched, fucked up miserable person just trying to make sense of what’s going on. And a lot of these blues songs are pretty metal, you know?”
Traditions abound in Johanna’s sound and process. “I didn’t have any of my instruments in Berlin, but I had come into this guitar by some cursed means. It was given to me by someone who, if I ever see again, I will do… violence.”
“I really wanted to change the guitar, like give it an exorcism. It was also a Telecaster, which is terrible for playing metal – like it’s really the worst gear. The wrong gear. So I spent about a year being very nerdy on reddit holes and gear forums until I had modded every piece of that guitar except for the body and the neck. And I basically just use one pedal that’s made by one guy in LA in his garage. And it’s perfect, my whole sound is in that pedal, and it fucking breaks all the time. But anyway, once I got the guitar sounding good and the pedal and everything, it became apparent that my own vocal cords and voice couldn’t meet the voice of the guitar.”
Indeed, Hedva used traditional Korean vocal rituals and exercises in order to achieve the kind of ravaged, tormented sound that goes with the themes of loss and grieving on the album. “So I started working with this vocal teacher, who explained to me these different cultural values around the voice – for example, for opera singers, their voice should sound pure and untouched by the singer’s body. But this is the opposite of Korean P’ansori tradition – the more ravaged and broken the voice sounds the better. I wanted my own voice to sound inhuman or supernatural.”
I’ve spoken at great lengths about playing with gender in heavy music. So, too, has Johanna, in their essay about mysticism in Nine Inch Nails. “I think music is the only socially accepted form of mysticism that we have left. At a show, the musicians are in some sort of rapturous ecstatic trance, everyone’s sweating and dancing together and moving in a way that you could just not do on the street! And everyone just goes along with it. It’s something that has always been very helpful for me in thinking in terms of both getting outside of the body but also happening physically within the body.
“Music is sort of the only place where we let men be different than men are supposed to be in other places in society. In music they get to emote, they get to be genderless, they get to be androgynous. David Bowie was ostensibly a cis man, but he’s also an alien, right?! I feel like when we’re all in this cathartic soup of musical ecstasy, then gender just goes away, doesn’t it?
“Women and genderqueer people have been in heavy music since the beginning and it’s just the fact that the patriarchy rules the world that you don’t know about these people. I mean, Diamanda Galas has been releasing records for what, forty years? And if you listen to her first album she does not sound like a woman or a man, she sounds like… a diabolical entity, a beast. And I think that is one of the things that heavy music lets you do. By exploring the non-human and the dehuman and the inhuman, we do away with gender in the process.”
“to answer your question about a headliner for download, i’d have to say someone like sainkho namtchylak or junko or diamanda galás. all three of these people are way more fucking metal than the typical headliners of download. i mean, their voices unmake. they sing about genocide, aids, death, and you can feel these things living in their bodies. it’s not a mask they put on, it’s not the performance of aggression as dictated by the laws of patriarchy which is what i’d say so many heavy bands tend to do, stomping around with their shoulders puffed up and jaws clenched. no, with artists like sainkho and junko and diamanda, it’s something at once rooted in skin and blood and bones and yet also has eclipsed what is possible for a body to do.”