In exploring the range of music that has been classified under the steampunk umbrella, Psyche Corporation would be on the more Gothic side of the spectrum. The one-woman musical singer behind the band, Psyche Chimère possesses a versatile voice, and her music ranges as far as the imaginative topics she sings about. At turns Psyche Corporation moves from evocative and theatrical, as with“Part of Her Design” or “Beast”; to the darkwave dance beats of “Institute” or “The Crime”; to whimsical but edgy storytelling like in “The Ceiling” and “Wonderland.” (You can listen to her music on her MySpace, Reverbnation, or last.fm).
Psyche Corporation’s music, however, has struck a chord with the steampunk community, and she has performed at steampunk events around the country, including The Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey, Dorian’s Parlor in Philadelphia, the Steampunk Salon run by the Brooklyn Indie Mart, and in conjunction with Steampunk Canada & the Toronto Steampunk Society for Canada’s Fan Expo. Psyche Corporation’s next steampunk performance will be at The Anachronism at Webster Hall in New York City on November 21st.
Just in time for Halloween, however, Psyche Chimère stopped by the blog to talk about her darkly-tinged music and her career as a musician in the steampunk community.
Hello Psyche Chimère!
Let’s start with a classic question: Describe to me the moment you decided to become a musician.
I started composing my own songs sometime in middle school. They were all piano-only instrumentals because I started out learning piano when I was 4 or 5 (but stopped formal training around age 6) and that’s what I knew. I don’t know that I thought I was going to perform them at the time; they were just for me. I started writing songs involving voice around the beginning of high school when I was singing more in high school and local musicals and talent shows (got 6 months of opera training at age 13, which helps).
I don’t remember any particular time I Decided to become a musician. I was always more focused on what I wanted to Do rather than what I wanted to Be, if that makes sense. I wanted to make music, and sing, and keep getting better. I didn’t think about starting a band or anything, though I thought about joining a band. I just had trouble finding any bands that were looking for singers whose music I liked.
When I started college, one of my friends tried to work with a producer who said he would shop her music to major record labels. He turned out to be kind of a shady character, but hearing about it also made me think about working with a producer to do a solo project. I answered a Craigslist ad, and by total coincidence it ended up being from the same jerk producer (who will go nameless). We worked on 3 songs together (“Minor Demon,” “Universe,” and “Raise the Dead”). Even though I was intensely involved in the music composition process and started making increasingly detailed draft versions of the instrumentals for each successive song, I was frustrated by not being able to make the music sound …More. He didn’t treat it like the composition of his soul, since it was just a job to him, so his compositions were very limited even though the production values were good. I started making my own music at the computer music studio at school in Columbia and pushed myself to get better. Around the same time, I made a MySpace page, got a booking request from 169 Bar, and performed “Minor Demon” there with a classmate who learned the guitar part so we could perform together. Somewhere in that series of events I became a more committed musician. I think for me, “deciding to become” something is something I avoid. I just do things until I either AM whatever it is that I might have wanted to become, or not.
I feel like I am still in the process of becoming a musician. There’s so much I still need to learn, like how to play guitar.
So, in an Amanda Palmer-esque fashion, I heard that you sort of picked up musical training in bit and pieces as opposed to having a lot of formal training.
I started taking piano lessons when I was 4 or 5 but had stopped by age 6. Supposedly I showed a lot of promise and I remember playing a concert at some point at (I think?) some chinese community thingy in New York, but I don’t remember much about it except it might have been the first time my mom made me wear lipstick. I stopped lessons after age 6 though. I liked playing with the piano, but I was very independent and stubborn (not always in a good way) and liked to do things on my own. I started taking opera singing lessons for a few months when I was 13 and I really enjoyed them. I think my voice teacher moved though, and my mother tried to find another voice teacher for me but nothing much came of it. We went to a few different people and stopped seeing them after one or two lessons. Then during senior year of high school I took opera again for about 6 months. That’s all of my formal training. I never took music theory or ear training.
I took 2 or 3 music classes in college but they were both very self-directed. One was the intro computer music course which I took because it grants you 24 hour swipe access to the school music studio (the actual courseload was incredibly laid back and we had to do 2 musical pieces but I ended up doing my first two albums in that studio in the nights and during vacation times when others weren’t using the studio). The other was an independent study where I just turned in all the music I made during the semester at the end as my final. I think I was only accepted into this course because the director of the computer music department remembered me as the one who was always working in the studio even though I wasn’t a music major. I did some variant of the independent study a second time too.
How long have you been writing music? How did you start?
I started writing music around age 12, composing piano pieces that were supposed to be the soundtracks to various stories in my head about elves on alien planets being born out of trees. I’ve always played around with the piano but it would be random banging for a while after I’d practiced what pieces I remembered from lessons long ago. I didn’t try to make something I’d remember and play the next day until around age 12. I also didn’t write sheet music and still am not terribly good at it. I just memorized which piano keys to hit next.
How did you get into using electronic equipment to create your music? What kind of equipment do you use?
Freshman year of college, one of my best friends (a sophomore at the time) introduced me to FL Studio (Fruity Loops). It’s a sequencer type program. I made all the background music for an old song of mine called Get Down on that program and recorded vocals over it, singing through a stocking I had stretched around a wire coat hanger to minimize plosive consonants.
Sophomore year I started taking the computer music intro class at Columbia and using Digital Performer (another program, kind of like Pro Tools except on a Mac).
My home studio (which I used to make my 3rd album, “Pretend”) also uses Digital Performer. The rest of my studio consists of: midi keyboard, Audio Technica AT4040 microphone, Roland XV-5050 synthesizer, and a MOTU Traveler preamp.
Do you play any other instruments?
Besides piano? Not really.. I played recorder in 4th grade and violin in middle school. I also played a combination lock to create the sound effects for my song “Antoinette.”
Sepiachord had described your music as “baroque pop.” What do you think of that term?
Baroque pop sounds pretty cool. I like the baroque term, in part because when I first started out, knowing almost nothing about making background music, my stuff was very minimalist. I would have LOVED to be able to create more elaborate music, but I didn’t have the experience. I think they used baroque in that context– to hint at multi-layeredness, not to say the music is overly ornate. Pop, I have mixed feelings about. I’ve always associated pop with having really good production values. Maybe the content isn’t always great, or the lyrics might be cookie cutter, but the sounds will be good. And production values are something I’ve tried to work on as much as possible given that I’m very into clarity of sounds and sonic textures and have always admired artists who can work well with noise. One of my favorite songs to listen to for texture is “Zerospace” by Kidneythieves. So when someone says my music is pop, I have to think about the context. I Don’t think Sepiachord was trying to say my music is cookie cutter, so maybe they mean it has mass appeal, which would be great, or maybe they are saying it has good production values–also good to hear (no pun intended).
Do you use labels to define your music?
I have had to come up with labels to help people parse my music (most common phrase lately: “Dark Victorian fairytale science fiction”) but when I’m working on my music, I definitely don’t think in terms of verbal labels. I’m usually thinking about dynamic rhythm (not that I think my rhythm is dynamic so much as dynamic rhythm’s always been one of the hardest things for me so I think about it more), and what sound frequencies my instrumentals and vocals are spreading across. I like to mix different timbres and have a nice distribution of pitch frequencies to use. I also like to do something musically that brings out strong emotions, or evokes dreams, or strange thought patterns. I think to myself “Does this feel Psyche Corp.?” And if not, it ends up either being deferred, revised, or used for a secret music side project that will likely never see the light of day.
Do you think steampunk plays a big part in your music?
Sometimes. I think some of my music themes overlap well with steampunk, such as “Antoinette” (a song about a girl made of clockwork and flowers), “Whirring World” (about the Fibonacci sequence, among other things), “Institute,” and other steampunk-friendly songs. By the way, I love that Sepiachord description, “steampunk-friendly.” I think it fits very well.
Steampunk plays another big part in my music because it influences the presentation of my performances since I enjoy the steampunk style very much, and often perform in steampunk segments of events.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are a lot of steampunk elements in the backstory of Psyche Corporation itself. The band is named after a dream manufacture group from the future, but it’s a future where technology is advanced enough that people can afford to do things that would seem ridiculously extravagant or impractical today. A lot of people in this future world have a steampunk-like aesthetic, because advancements in fabric-ingrained heating and cooling systems mean you can wear whatever you want in whatever weather. A lot of people choose to go for Victorian-style clothing since they no longer confer the same heating or movement-restriction problems they did back in the day. Replacement body parts are also a common thing in the future, and there’s no need to go for the strictly functional “21st century modern” designs. You can have excessive things on it, steam whistles, whatever you want. The extra weight of these prosthetics won’t be a problem because the technology of the future takes care of the weight issue with a sort of anti-gravity add-on.
My world is steampunk in a different direction than what I normally hear about steampunk. Normally I’ve heard steampunk is the future as envisioned by the past. In the Psyche Corp. world, steampunk is the future’s vision of the past, just improved and stylized for fun.
Why do you think the steampunk community enjoys your style so much?
Psyche Corporation has an undercurrent of the cerebral and macabre, with a touch of theatrics. I think these are all qualities that would appeal to the steampunk community. Also, I try to keep it to myself but a lot of people I meet in steampunk remind me of what life was like living in Psyche Corporation’s world. The people with mechanical wings especially remind me of city-dwellers in the time of the Angelic Commonwealth. The steampunks seem like the types to partake of and be involved in dream manufacture. Maybe Psyche Corporation’s music reminds them of the different times and realms they have traveled in.
You have a great gothic storytelling element in your work. What comes first for you: the story that needs to be set to music, or music that is just begging to tell a story?
It varies. Sometimes I have a story idea and make music around it. Other times I start with instrumentals I’m messing with and see what stories come to mind when I’m listening to it. And thank you!
In the back story for your band, the Psyche Corporation is a corporation that works creating dreams. Care to elaborate about them?
So … Psyche Corporation’s entire story is a bit mysterious and I hope to delve more into it with side stories and/or songs as time goes on but here’s the official story from the website:
“After the fall of the Angelic Commonwealth, extensive non-medical neural implants for humans become legalized, and people begin connecting to the Psi-Net remotely, by thought. Dream manufacture companies arise, selling dream downloads for nominal prices. Psyche Corporation is especially successful, going on to capture the dream market. “
All the rest about Psyche Corporation, including those stories about it taking subliminal mind control of the human population, are urban legends, so it’s probably best for me not to perpetuate wild rumors by discussing them too much.
Should they be someone I should look out for before going to bed tonight?
Neurotechnology has made a lot of progress these past few decades, and people are starting to be able to use computers to look at the blood flow patterns in your brain and figure out what your eyes are seeing just from that. It seems like dream manufacture of some kind may be possible one day, but as far as I can tell, that day is far far away. I am rather hoping to be involved once I have done more biomedical engineering research myself though.
Are there any other parts of this world that you include in your songs besides the Psyche Corporation?
Oh absolutely! The Angelic Commonwealth and its fall during the Angelic War were big themes in a lot of songs. “Fantasy Moon,” “Part of Her Design,” and to some degree “Medicine Man” were all influenced by sociopolitical situations going on during the Angelic Commonwealth. Fantasy Moon alludes to the taboo on romance between humans and Angels, or romance involving Angels, period. There was an extremely controversial film released during the late Angelic Commonwealth era touching upon the same theme, but the details of it are in a short story that will likely never see daylight. “Part of Her Design” is about the Angelic War from the point of view of one of the sides. “Medicine Man” alludes to an old wives’ tale about the village of Meinaii, which was cut off from critical supplies such as food and medicines during the NeoLuddite wars and also during the aftermath. This is technically pre-Angelic Commonweath, but the Angelic Commonwealth was built almost immediately after the NeoLuddite wars, so there’s a little overlap. I sort of planned to write another song dealing more specifically with the story of Meinaii though, so I won’t go into what happened exactly in Meinaii here.
As you may have guessed, the backstory of Psyche Corporation spans many hundreds of years (the Angelic Commonwealth itself lasted about 500 to 600 years). And the future story of Psyche Corporation goes on either almost as long or longer, depending on which rumors you believe.
You’ve also been inspired by a lot of random moments in life. You said that many people have had theories about the story behind your song “Institute” (one of my favorites, by the way). What have people guessed this song is about? What inspired you to write it?
People have guessed the song is about training methods in the US Military, or sadistic pedophilia, and I think those are the main conjectures. I wrote it because I misheard the lyrics of a completely different band during a concert of theirs I was attending. I thought the singer was saying “break little girls” (though she probably wasn’t) and it sounded like an interesting phrase, so I wrote a song around it. By the way, I don’t always have creepy mishearings. Most recently, I was at a goth dance party of my friend’s and was convinced that the vocals of an industrial dance song were just “POTATOES” growled over and over. I also listened to Worm Quartet’s song “What Your Parents Think All Your Music Sounds Like” and misheard the chorus as “Shitf-ckthatbear! Shit. F-ck. That. Bear!!” If my connections ever get me a copy of their background track, I will probably do a parody version of that song as a tribute.
Myths also inspirations for your songs. “Lee Lee the Wonder Girl” is a dark creation story for instance. Care you share more about your fascination with myths?
Glad you asked! “Lee Lee” was inspired by a theme I was seeing in a lot of myths, where the world is shaped out of other people’s body parts. In Norse mythology, there is a story of an ice giant Ymir who dies one day; the younger Norse gods come along and decide to throw his brains into the sky to make clouds. In some Japanese myths, the world begins as a dark, landless sea, with an egg floating on top. A man hatches out of the egg and decides he would like some land to break up the monotony of the sea, so he rips out his own liver and throws it into the sea to become the first land. In Greek mythology, Gaia’s whole body is the earth. That’s just a few examples among many. So with Lee Lee, I decided to make my own creation myth, and use the traditional “have someone die and be used for parts” theme. Lee Lee for instance, has a little pre-big bang-like universe inside of her, which eventually Bangs and expands outward, obliterating her body. The story was originally a poem (it may be archived somewhere on the Psyche Corp. website under “World of Psyche Corp.), and describes a bit more about Lee Lee’s last days, leaking nebulas out of her eyes and things like that. The song riffs off of the poem.
“Lee Lee” is one of the most outright myth songs I have, but there are certainly many others that touch on folklore and myth. For instance, “Architect of Dreams,” where a human woman gives her firstborn to the elf king because for whatever reason she can’t raise the child, that’s a nod to a lot of fairytales where human children are promised to magical creatures, or stolen by them (as happens in a beautiful italian operatic song called “Figlio Perduto”). “Faery’s Deal” and “One Thousand Years” are two-parts of a story where a man makes a supernatural bargain in exchange for immortality/1000 years of life. This is another recurring theme I see in myths or folklore, where immortality for one person comes at the cost of someone else’s life, or is purchased with unspeakable acts.
And some mythical style songs I have no idea where I got from. “Morpheus” happened because I heard the song in my head one day and kept searching for it on the Internet only to discover it did not exist. I had to make the whole thing from scratch and the words were just, There. I don’t know where that came from.
You often take childhood ideas and inspiration and make them frightening. “Wonderland” is a battle between Oz and Wonderland. “The Ceiling” includes a scene where a little boy pressing all the buttons in the elevator makes the whole building turn crazy. What makes exploring these dark themes through children and children’s literature so appealing to you?
I love the way children are open to random, complicated scenarios and are able to experience them as if the strange world really has logic to it and is not just a mishmash. I feel like a lot of times an adult will look at some crazy magical world and just say “oh it’s crazy, nothing more to think about here” while the child doesn’t check out so quickly and can spend some time developing a logical justification for why someone would keep guitars in their heads to be pulled out when they need to play baseball with giant robot monsters. I love taking that ride into a world and following strange ideas through as far as they will go, just for the fun of it. I see young children doing things like this, not being afraid or worried that they’re wasting time on something frivolous when they should be elsewhere, being normal. I see some adults do this too, but the stresses of having to support yourself in the physical world make it harder sometimes to engage in the imagination as frequently.
What are other current music projects you’re working on?
I’m working on a song called “Ineffable Pants” at the moment, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I have notes for a song about a Fairytale lab also, but I suspect it’s going to have a more complicated rhythm, and rhythms are challenging for me so I may start with Ineffable Pants (a more straightforward song) to get myself up to speed. I moved to Connecticut for school in August and have been settling into that while still performing every month or more, so it took a little while to get organized enough to start doing new music again. I also did a song collaboration for a secret side project during this time, but it’s very much not Psyche Corporation, so I’ll keep mum on it for now except to say I’ve always been curious about the genre, and it was good to try something totally different.
All images courtesy of Psyche Corporation