cryptically refers to her debut solo album, Psychotic Melancholia, as a “Sodom and Gomorrah concept album” influenced by her childhood obsession with the so-called wicked women in the bible. As metal as that sounds, these are in fact the basic ingredients for a rich and complex psych-tinged garage-country record.
Thompson-King has carried the seeds for Psychotic Melancholia for quite some time. “I was the skeptical kid with her hand up in Sunday school. Also, I spent weekends performing with my church youth group called Clowns for Christ. I guess you could say I was obsessed with getting to the bottom of what exactly would send one to hell."
“I consider myself agnostic at this point,” she says, “but I’m still inspired by the questions I had as a kid about disobedience and about the characters I was taught to believe were evil, like Lot’s Wife and Judas and Lucifer. Upon revisiting these stories, I was inspired by their questioning. I thought they were strong and exciting and I could put myself in their shoes.”
Her intellectual curiosity is evident in lush songs referencing Romantic works of art, her passion for opera (she has a Master’s degree in Opera Performance from New England Conservatory of Music), and her upbringing in a very small town, Sebastian, Fla. Thompson-King sees the album as an amalgamation of her classical training and Southern roots. “I grew up riding and showing American Quarter Horses," she says. "My dad was a team-roper and trained cutting horses. I spent alot of time in the dually listening to country music. And then I went to opera school.”
Thompson-King explains that her songs often begin outside of herself, but ultimately they reflect on her inner experience. “I write about real things that have happened in my life," she says. "My relationships, like with my folks, the people I love, but using the landscape and stories of outside characters. They’re all about me, I guess, but it’s easier to write if I'm looking at a third party. So I look at myself as another character.”
If there's one unifying theme on Psychotic Melancholia, it's the dismantling of false idols. In “Teratoma,” Thompson-King sings, “False idol, I put you on my shelf / False idol, just hair and skin and nails / I’ll cut you out / I’ll cut you out of myself.”
This tendency is illustrated in opening track “Large Hall, Slow Decay,” a blazing country burner directed at a former bandmate with whom Thompson-King had a harsh break-up. The title also references the reverb effect that reminds her of this time in her musical life. But Thompson-King doesn't need to hide behind effects when it comes to her vocals. Her powerful voice and classical training rank her with operatically schooled rock belters like Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson. Her training is brought to bear in the power of “Lot's Wife,” a dirty roadhouse scorcher that re-imagines the Biblical character as a defiant and fearless woman who turns back one last time to watch the city she loves burn. On “Soul Kisser,” a meditation on the midwifery and violence of the creative process, she evokes Goya's bizarre painting Saturn Devouring His Son. Thompson-King's impassioned vibrato creates a temporary calm amidst the album's tempestuous guitars. The proceedings are closed out with a cover of Schumann's “Wehmut” (in English, the album's namesake: “Melancholy”). Originally composed for piano and voice, Thompson-King and bassist Chris Maclachlan present their sparse re-arrangement omitting much of the accompaniment, save for the left-hand piano part which Maclachlan deftly covers on upright bass. Thompson-King sings with full operatic bravado, "Ich kann wohl manchmal singen / als ob ich fröhlich sei / Doch heimlich Tränen dringen / Da wird das Herz mir frei" ("Sometimes I may be singing as if I were full of joy, But secretly the tears are flowing and then my heart feels free").
This new LP is a labor of love six months in the making. Thompson-King co-produced along with guitarist and engineer Pete Weiss. The band, assisted by engineer Sean Cahalin, spent the good part of October 2016 through March 2017 working in Weiss’ Verdant Studio in Athens, Vt., where they obsessively tweaked songs, and experimented with instrumentation and mic set-ups to create an affecting soundscape. “We wanted it to be emotional and exciting. In the end, we did most tracks live and with limited overdubs. It was a lot of pre-production, drum sounds, where to stand in the room, shaping songs and playing together as a band. Verdant (Studio) is really conducive to working this way. The engineer is in the live room with you. It's a beautiful space to spread out. We weren't trying to do something that was perfect," Thompson-King says. "We were trying to do something wild and very real—human.”
Thompson-King resides in Massachusetts, where her artistry has already been widely recognized. She currently receives a grant from the city of Somerville and the Somerville Arts Council to live as an Artist in Residence. Along with Weiss, she is joined on Psychotic Melancholia by bassist Maclachlan of veteran Boston New Wave band Human Sexual Response, and drummer Jonathan Ulman, Boston Music Awards' 2016 Session Player of the Year. While off the road, Thompson-King teaches classical voice lessons to select students in her home studio, but she feels a strong sense of place as a writer, artist and performer. Reflecting on the departure from a career as an opera singer to that of singer-songwriter, she notes, “I knew I had this big voice and I wanted to use it in a serious way, but it needed to be my vision. I needed to write for myself.”
Ultimately, though, she sees a connection between her music and opera. “It's emotional and intense with dramatic, mythological characters," she says. "But the stories are really pretty common and human.”
Psychotic Melancholia is out September 1, 2017 on Hard To Kill Records.