Hermit High Priestess | Photo by Sarrah Danziger | via facebook.com/atreenamedturtle

“THERE’S ALWAYS MORE”– Hermit High Priestess on trauma, eclecticism, and the hope of being understood

The idea of “shattering the binary” is often a lofty one in music, especially in genres and scenes as insular as punk rock. On the one hand, punk has a reputation for being unabashedly free, artistically daring, its practitioners eschewing constraint and announcing themselves as “other.” Yet if you dig beneath the surface — past the bullet belts, gas station attendant jackets, and spiked hair — you’ll find a uniform orthodoxy that often holds the genre in stasis.

Hermit High Priestess are two wandering spirits informed by an idealistic re-imagining of punk rock, where magic and incantation are as much a part of the punk rock process as are cryptically scrawled black t-shirts. Dani and Anna play music that is heavy, yet still somehow heavenly, forgoing the three-chord stomp and bash of yet another Ramones or Discharge reincarnation. Instead their music, like on “The Rake’s Wave”, a standout track on their forthcoming EP, infuses warm strings, mischievous bass and xylophone lines, along with Anna’s determined, heartfelt vocals ruminating on the necromantic nature of systems that corrupt our dreams.

It’s almost as if the still-expanding underground music scene struggles to make room for HHP, yet still they persist, turning up on bills with aggressive punk bands, spoken word artists, R&B acts, metal bands — when you’re an ethereal, romantic, tribal folk band evoking Dead Can Dance, and Tori Amos as much as more obscure Crass Records bands like Tappi Tikarras, there’s a certain amount of work you’ve got to be prepared to do to find your tribe. Although they’ve yet to be embraced fully, HPP, with their latest work, are ready to start the ritual to affect the change they want to see in their world — non-binary, brilliant, and free of the trappings of genre.

We sat down and talked with them on the precipice of their latest release to find out what conversations they were having as a band that led them to create such rousing work.

The Key: What are your names and duties in the band? How and when did Hermit High Priestess meet, what were the circumstances that moved you to play music together? How has the song-writing process evolved since?

Dani: Hey, hello, my name is Dani. My duties in the band are a bit numerous, but primarily I am responsible for live percussion – I play an instrument that is a combination of a traditional drum set and two octaves of resonator bells, which are comparable to a xylophone. I also write out the bass lines, and cello lines, and the ambient sounds too. And I do all the computer things for us, so the programming and all of that stuff.

Anna: I’m Anna and my primary thing is singing and writing lyrics. That said, we both share the work when it comes to the arrangements. We both bottom-line different things but also both share our thoughts and ideas around each other’s contributions. It can be intense! But ultimately it is a very beautiful process that I have learned so much from. The writing we do together has changed quite a bit; it is unintentionally reflected in the songs on our EP.

Dani: Yeah, It wasn’t planned but the songs on our EP actually go from the song we wrote first to the song we wrote last. And each song actually has a different approach. The first song, “Root Witch”, was something I had written as an instrumental before I even met Anna, so for that, it was more of a matter of her laying lyrics over something that was already there.

Anna: My musical writing was a lot more hurried and arrogant in the beginning. The bones for the vocal line of the “The Rakes Wave” were written in two takes. I think Dani was a little horrified by my cavalier approach but was also there for it. Now they write a lot faster than I do, which is so cool and impressive to witness, and I am working on patience and precision. Overall we are in a place now where we really work together and trying to push ourselves to write more. The initial lyrics I used for us were thoughtful as they were taken from personal writing I had been hoarding for years! I’m pushing myself to write words more freely and with less anxiety in our new work.

Dani: And in terms of us meeting, it happened about three and a half years ago. We met when I was performing music I had written for a production of The Wizard of Oz. Anna had worked with the company previously, so was there to help out. After the play ended, we ran into each other randomly on the street one day and she asked if I’d like to play with her, mainly because she was bored and visiting from a city she was used to constantly singing in.

Anna: [to Dani] I was very impressed by you. And I thought you were a runaway model from Paris. [laughs out loud]

Dani: We played together the next day, and it clicked. From there, it was a slow testing of waters as we started both a romantic relationship as well as a musical one, but came together pretty solidly within a few months, especially since we had a chance opportunity to tour if we got it all together in time.

The Key: Hermit High Priestess, I would describe, as being a punk rock Tori Amos / Portishead hybrid for the modern, post-Soundcloud age. Would you agree? Have you been able to find kindred spirits to play with? If so, who?

Anna: Wow. Thank you for comparing us to Tori Amos and Portishead! Dani and I both came up in punk scenes (albeit quite different from each others) and that comes through for sure. Little Earthquakes had a profound effect on me as a kid and Portishead is just a super special band.

The Key: What hurdles — as a two piece, as a band that functions against gender binaries, and as a band that isn’t playing prototypical “punk rock”– have you faced in the underground scene?

Dani: Woof, well I can say, when I first started doing this, when I was doing it alone, that I had a difficult time in the underground music scene. All my friends were playing in heavier bands, whether punk, metal, screamo, or sludge, and I just didn’t seem to fit in with it all anymore, having spent the years prior to that playing and touring mostly in metal bands. Whenever people saw me perform, they were into it, but that did not translate into getting asked to play shows. Now that Anna and I have joined together, that has changed, but I still think a disconnect exists. I think there’s a freedom in our sound in that there are many places where we can fit and different places we can feel at home, but with that comes the possibility of not being fully accepted in any of those places. I would love to talk more about my experiences with the struggles of gender as it relates to music, and specifically punk, but I don’t quite know how to put it into words at this moment.

Anna: But there are people who have embraced us, and who we love to share space with, and play with. Camp Candle has been another two-piece who have consistently been kind, supportive, and cool. Pinkwash are another two-piece who I think are doing what we’re doing and pushing the bounds of what music can do. Trophy Wife have been an inspiration to us, even if we never got to play together. Oh god, the list goes on: Emily Bate, Aphid Daughters, Forgotten Bottom, Jupiter Blue —  another two piece, Invasive Species, Kilamanzego, Thunder Thighs, Ultraviolet, On the Water have always been sweet to us, Snow Caps, Garden Gate, Monk and Joyce Hatton are writers whose work and friendship we both deeply appreciate. There’s more.

Dani: There’s always more.

The Key: I’m aware that the two of you have endured some physical trauma in the past couple of years. If it’s helpful to you and your listeners, and you don’t mind sharing with the audience, can you explain? How has adjusting to the new constraints on your bodies shaped the music you’re making? Are you able to channel any of that trauma into your music? Do you think there’s a place for healing, both emotionally and physically, within music? If yes, describe ways and if not, why not?

Dani: Just about two years ago, on January 12th, I was hit by a car while biking and had my hip and my elbow broken. This was right around the time we were starting to get things together to make our first recording. So yeah, basically I had to go through a year long healing process before I started to feel close to how I felt before being hit; I couldn’t play drums for close to eight months.

Anna: And I had surgery on both of my feet, which was very intense but far less traumatic than what Dani and I had gone through two years prior. It was also less frightening due to my access to Medicaid. That said, it was still scary and put a hold on our work for several months; we canceled plans for a tour, for instance.

Dani: I think these adjustments and healing processes have definitely impacted our music. “Muses,” the third song on our EP, was primarily written while I was immobilized from the hip injury, and I think the day-to-day mood of what I was experiencing is captured in it. There’s a stillness and space, a kind of meandering through a dark and hard time. And coming back to the drums after eight months off definitely changed my approach to it. It was around that time that I overhauled my entire setup and created what I’m playing now. I think taking that step back allowed me to come back and approach the drums in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Anna: I’m still healing. But my healing process is unique because having this surgery has actually freed me from constraints I had previously experienced. The process, however, has been difficult and at times exacerbated feelings of anxiety and depression that I already live with. Music has both been a source of trauma for me and a place of healing, for a very long time. In ways I could not have foreseen, our project has forced me to confront a great deal of the trauma I have from a past pursuing a career in classical music.

Dani: And hopefully this band is helping. And yeah, for me, I definitely think there is a place for healing in music. I mean for me, playing drums, like not just performing live, but playing alone in my basement, practicing, and grinding through it all is healing for me. I do not think I would be the drummer, or the musician, I am today if practice didn’t have such a healing effect on me.

The Key: I’m interested in your band name as well; Anna I know you’re a huge fan of seminal underground rap group Antipop Consortium and one of its emcees Hprizm, aka High Priest. Was this a sort of marriage of your old name, Hermit Pappess, and an homage to APC?

Anna: Well I was first introduced to APC through Dani. When we met we listened to Tragic Epilogue almost every morning. That group is so incredible. There may have been an influence there with our name but it was subliminal. Somewhere I have saved all the names we came up with for our band before we arrived at Hermit Papess. They’re hilarious and awesome. The tarot cards that correspond to our birthdays are The Hermit for me, and The High Priestess for Dani. Papess is an archaic term for high priestess and we changed it in hopes of being better understood.

Hermit High Preistess celebrates the release of their new EP at The Mothership in West Philadelphia on Sunday, January 13th; more on the show can be found at the band’s Facebook page.