Dorianna Thornton of Witch H(c)unt | photo by Garrett Bolin | courtesy of the artist
West Philadelphia performance artist Doriana Thornton on trauma, self-expression and essential education
I almost feel the need to apologize to Doriana Thornton for using the word “powerful” so much over the course of our interview.
It kept coming up, again and again, but it’s kind of a fitting way to encapsulate the latest project from the West Philadelphia performance artist. Under the banner Witch H(c)unt, Thornton releases a self-titled record this Thursday – their birthday – and it’s an interdisciplinary exploration of issues surrounding gender, sexuality and race: things like abuse, consent, inclusiveness and more. The record raises topics that needs to be discussed, gives voice to people who need to be heard, and does so with candor, elegance, and yes, power. And we’re happy to give you a first listen to the album today.
As a vocalist, Thornton has an even alto in the vein of Nico, Amanda Palmer and Antony; it can be warm and graceful one moment, cutting and aggressive the next. Instrumentally, they gravitate towards banjo, and it gets incorporated in all manner of unconventional ways on the album – strummed like an acoustic guitar, or piped through a distortion pedal to searing effect, in addition to a more trad style of plucking. Working with producer Scott Sitzer and bassist Garrett Bolin, who Thornton also collaborates with in the punk outfit Sidenail, they arranged the album with beds of lo-fi synthesizers and percussion, building the songs up when it works and leaving them sparse when it’s more appropriate.
“Vomit Queen” is an example of the former, a chugging punk song about overdrinking – it’s a moment of pure levity on a record where emotions are more often juxtaposed. On the opening “I don’t like u,” Thornton pairs lyrics about depression and relationship dysfunction with a playful melody – lyrics like “you only like me when I’m manic / you only like me when I panic” are very serious, but the tune is inviting. On the other end of the spectrum, the provocatively-titled “fuck boyz never change” is pure, potent urgency.
On that song, Thornton candidly relates emotions felt in the wake of rape via a vocal catharsis. The song is just them, and a banjo. “All the boys in my life are a disappointment / I wanna cut you with a knife, but not in a nice way / most of them will rape me, the other ones ignore me,” Thornton begins, later directly confronting an abuser: “I am enraged you raped me, die.”
Asked about the decision to leave that song quite literally bare, Thornton says “It’s so serious and so emotional, I wanted to have nothing distracting from what I’m saying, because it’s so important.”
Which definitely makes for a – I’m sorry – powerful listening experience. It’s not an easy minute and 53 seconds, and is the first song I’ve ever heard to be preceded by a content warning, but it forces the listener to firmly grasp the anguish and agony that victims of abuse experience, and reflect on how they treat other persons in their life.
When Thornton talks about their other band, Sidenail – which features Bolin as well as Curtis Cooper – they say how fun it is, an adrenaline rush of loud amps and screamed vocals. By comparison, this project seems more emotionally draining than fun, and I ask about that. Thornton says it is in fact enjoyable to perform as Witch H(c)unt, and sees the project as living in a similar vein, though the content is different. Their word: “moody.” And as to why they took that approach with the music, Thornton says it’s “Because I’m moody, I’m really moody. I have a lot of trauma – or, maybe not a lot. Everything’s comparable. I guess compared to somebody who didn’t have any trauma I do, but not compared to somebody who has all the trauma in the world. But this is my life. And it feels more true.”
That’s not to say Thornton doesn’t have other concerns to put on the table; racial justice is a major one, but they didn’t feel right being the mouthpiece of someone else’s struggle – instead, the album sets aside time for interlude tracks with poems and essays by three authors Thornton connected with on Facebook.
Nayo Jones reads a piece reflecting on being black and queer (“a disappearing act, a lesson in silence”). Rehan Ahmed’s “Phone Call and Faith” zooms in on a conversation with a parent: “she says ‘be careful.’ I ask why. She says, ‘Didn’t you hear on the news? The mass shooter was Muslim.” And Karla Maria’s “Brown Girl in the Mix” is a very honest look at being a person of color in a predominantly white punk scene, while their “Tuesday Hauntings” is about being Facebook friends with one’s rapist.
Thornton says their art is their way of remaining politically active – “I have a lot of anxiety, as you can tell by the songs, and it’s hard for me to go to protests and meetings. One way I feel like I can be productive and feel good and push back against all this shit that’s given to me … is talking to people one-on-one, trying to educate people.”
Education is key, and they see the writers sharing their stories and lending their voices to the project very much as educators – “the goal was definitely to leverage my position of power as someone who’s making an album and using my resources to support queer people of color and doing this education work.”
Thornton will celebrate the release of Witch H(c)unt Thursday night with a performance at All Night Diner in West Philadelphia. From there, they plan on continuing to write, reflect and learn. “I’m excited to feel ashamed of myself now, to look back and say ‘wow, you didn’t know anything.’” Thornton laughs, and adds, “That’s an anxious brain thing, looking ahead in time to say ‘well, I’m going to feel bad about this then, so I’m going to start feeling bad about it now to prepare for feeling bad about it then.’ Whatever. I try to be as healthy as I can be, but maybe I’m not the healthiest. Its’ fine. We’re all trying.”