Faith Eliott on medieval beasts, independence, and the art of language
It’s maybe apt that Faith Eliott is in Oxford – not in the university, but on the way back from a gig in that city synonymous with the world of learning.
On her mobile, and again appropriately just out of the “dead zone”, I want to get their take on the curious world of creatures as seen by medieval artists – these ‘Impossible Bodies’ depicted in song on her album.
“I’ve always been interested in animals and medieval representations and illustration,” says the Minneapolis native, in an accent that’s a mix of American and Scots. Eliott, though born in the USA, moved to Scotland aged 13, both parents being in the teaching profession.
“I was always surrounded by history and mythology,” Eliott relates, “it feels innate, something I do, so I was drawn to it naturally.”
“In another life I’d love to do a biology degree,” continues the singer and artist, “as I find it really fascinating, visually, just the idea of these tiny creatures and cells and... blobs? – I get really excited about that.”
Eliott’s first long player – which follows an EP on Edinburgh’s Song, by Toad label in 2016 – contains nine tunes, each a depiction of a beast; from the sex-changing ‘Grouper’ fish, to ‘Laika’, the first dog in space.
One standout track is single ‘Lilith’, sometimes known as Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden.
“There’s a lot of stuff about my own life and experience – that song is more about gender roles,” they reveal.
Eliott identifies as non-binary, and uses “datum pronouns” i.e. “they” replacing “he” or “she” – making for, apart from anything else, an unfamiliar use of the English language, which doesn’t have a non-gender pronoun.
“I guess it’s very personal and different for everybody why they would choose to do that, I suppose I never felt being a woman really felt right or suited me, so pronouns were a way of having a bit more control over how I feel about myself and my identity - so in my mid-20s I started using it because it felt right.
“There’s not a super clear-cut answer, I’ve been looking for something snappy to say about it for quite a few years, but it’s not really happened!”, they laugh. “It just feels right.”
But language is important to the songwriter, who includes an elaborately illustrated lyric sheet as park of the package.
“I’m always interested in songwriting more than the music, the craft of the song, the poetry, the lyrics,” they say. Namechecking Leonard Cohen and Richard Dawson as big influences, it could also be that academic background which makes the songwriting process more of a science.
“I always do lots of fact checking, being inspired by science and history I’ll go off on one, just in case there’s someone in the audience who’ll go ‘well, actually, I think you’ll find, that...’!”.
“I try and have a bit of poetic licence but get my facts straight to some degree – definitely I take scientific ideas and historic ideas and warp them to fit what I want to say.”
The multidisciplined Elliot’s artistic background lends itself to costumes and jewel-encrusted headphones, as well as the album’s artwork, which ties in with the bestiaries, where medieval artists would attempt to depict creatures they had never actually seen.
Releasing on the label Elliot founded with fellow songwriter Hailey Beavis means there is a freedom to how their music is packaged – as well as how they move forward.
“We’re definitely a collective, all the people involved were all friends before and already working together and helping each other out.
“I’d definitely like to expand – (at Song by Toad) I was introduced to a lot of people I’m working with now, and on this tour I’ve met a few people starting labels of their own so it’d be nice to form a community of DIY labels.”
‘Impossible Bodies’ was itself something of a DIY effort – recorded in Seattle with another musician met in Edinburgh, Colin J. Nelson aka Jealous of the Birds, though the recording’s location was more a matter of convenience, as Eliott was on tour in the USA.
“Seattle was closer than Scotland at the time,” they recount. “It wasn’t a proper studio recording, some of it was recorded in his living room – but my first EP was more in my own bedroom.
“So I’m graduating to other people’s bedrooms!”
‘Impossible Bodies’ is out now on OK Pal. More at faitheliott.com.