The first song that Erin Saoirse Adair wrote about sexual assault was a cheerful folksong accompanied by ukulele. Her latest begins with ten F-words and is backed by a jazz ensemble.
On Saturday, the Ottawa singer-songwriter will unveil her new EP, Gaslight, in a show at Pressed in Centretown. But there will be an “explicit” warning on several of the songs, reflecting the seriousness of the material, and Adair's furious approach.
It's an anger which has been shared by many women this spring, after the result of the Jian Ghomeshi assault trial, and disclosures of infamous rapes involving other celebrities. But Adair told OttawaJazzScene.ca that she started writing on this topic well before the Ghomeshi revelations.
“I've been writing songs like this for the last several years, and have been performing them somewhat, and have dabbled in the topic in all of my previous releases. The reason why I'm releasing it at this time is because it worked out that way. I had enough songs and I had the ability to release it as part of one of my classes at Carleton [University]."
The classic female protest song is vocals and guitar or piano, but Adair has added a strong jazz accompaniment. Local jazz musicians Michel Delage on drums, Nick Dyson on trumpet, and Richard Page on saxophone and clarinet back her on the EP's five tracks.
“I felt like the brass gave me more power in my singing and it made the song sound more angry in a way. More brash,” she said.
It started with “The Manarchist”, a song she wrote about supposedly-feminist men who undercut women and are just looking to get laid. “I thought it would be really funny to have a tenor saxophone because it reminded me of manarchist guys and their specific swagger. There's this sort of stereotype with men's rights activists and sexist guys of wearing a fedora, so I had an image of a fedora in my head when I was arranging that song.”
“The trumpet in [the title song] “Gaslight” that Nick Dyson plays, it kind of reflects the trumpet that I was hearing in ... he improvised a little on it, but in the [Netflix] show “Jessica Jones”, which is about sexual assault and superhero PTSD, there's a lot of trumpet with Harmon mute throughout that show, which I thought was really cool."
Jazz vocalist Nina Simone, who expressed a great deal of anger (about racism) in her songs like “Mississippi Goddamn”, may have also had an effect, Adair said. “I love her. I listen to her all the time, so I guess in the sense that I'm influenced by whatever I'm listening to, I would say that she's one of my influences.”
The EP's title comes from a 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie called Gaslight, which Adair found to be a good metaphor for her own and others' experiences.
“The main character, her memory is confused and she's told that things are happening that aren't happening and she's basically made to believe that she's mentally unwell. I've heard people use the term before especially in the context of sexual assault and victim-blaming towards women. So I thought that was perfect, and also I've seen that happen a lot in my own life, so I figured that would be a good thing to write about.”
Adair said she herself was sexually assaulted and then told that it didn't happen: “either explicitly told that it didn't happen, told that you're lying, or told various other things to make you think that what you're feeling isn't correct, that you shouldn't feel bad about it because of various things.”
The songs vary in how they approach the topic, some very raw, some more satirical or metaphorical. “The 'Burn It All Down' song, for example, was right in the middle of the heap, so right in the middle of when I was experiencing the most traumatic stuff. And so that was a way for me to make sense of it all. And plus I was listening to a lot of punk music at the time, which made it OK to express anger in that way. And then other stuff I find it also beneficial to express things more metaphorically and being less completely blatant.”
The song “I Didn't Report Because” was inspired by a blog post by a survivor who explained why she didn't report her assault to the police. “I wrote the song about my own experience vaguely because I was annoyed that everyone was saying to me either report to the police or stop talking about it. That was the message I was getting a lot, so I wrote the song in response to that. Going to the police isn't the only option, and definitely isn't a way to get justice. Not that I'm telling [survivors] what to do. I'm just giving another narrative.”
She said the reaction she's got so far when she's played the angry songs like “Burn It All Down” has been polarized: very negative or very supportive. “It's either really uncomfortable or a kind of joy. Either like 'she's kind of losing it on stage' or 'Wow! She's losing it on stage. That's awesome!' ”
“I've had a lot of backlash. I've had a lot of people saying do you really want to say it in that way? Don't you think you should say it in a different way? Don't you think you should write songs that are less uncomfortable? That kind of stuff. But no matter how I sing about sexual assault, if I was to write like a nice folksong with an acoustic guitar that wasn't as explicit, I would still get the same reaction.”
“But I've gotten some positive response. I took down the garage band demo version of 'Burn It All Down' from YouTube, and then I got a couple emails from people saying that they really need that song right now because of the Ghomeshi trial. So getting some messages like that out, that's given me strength ... because I know that I'm not doing it to convince anybody, I'm not doing it to convince anyone of anything. I'm doing it to give a voice to sexual assault survivors and to give a 'You're not alone' message. Like 'Don't be afraid to speak out,' or even if you are afraid to speak out, you can do it anyway.”
Most of the negative reaction has been from men, she said, although some women have been turned off by her extensive use of swear words.
Why did she use “fuck”? “I've sung about sexual assault a lot and in a lot of different ways, and no matter what I say, people say that I'm being too militant and abrasive. Like the first song that I wrote was this ukulele song in A major that I intentionally made as happy and cheerful as possible and unabrasive, and I still got negative feedback that you're too angry, which was ridiculous. So then I ended up just releasing that. So there you go – you say I'm too angry, there's an angry song. I don't think there's any way that you can talk about sexual assault and people will not nitpick your tone or tone police you.”
“But also it was very cathartic for me. I like singing that song, and I know a lot of people enjoy listening to it for the same reason.”
Last December, Adair organized OchsFest, a day-long musical tribute to iconic 60s protest singer Phil Ochs, which included folk, world, and jazz musicians. She also released a tribute CD to Ochs' music, backed by three local jazz musicians: Page, Delage, and Don Cummings on Hammond organ.
She said that listening to Ochs was “very cathartic for me, because I felt that he was saying what other people were thinking about the state of the world, and I really admired that. He didn't really beat around the bush. So that empowered me to be able to do the same thing.”
Four of the five songs on the Gaslight EP were on a graduation recording for Adair's music degree at Carleton University. She'll be starting a Master's degree in Music and Culture next September at Carleton.
She's also writing the material for her next CD this summer – which will include some of the same topics as Gaslight – and will record it during the next academic year, with a planned release date of September, 2017.
– Alayne McGregor
Erin Saoirse Adair will officially release Gaslight in a show at Pressed in Centretown on Saturday evening (May 21), backed by Richard Page, Nicholas Dyson, and Mike Essoudry on drums. The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and also includes two other bands. Tickets are $20 (with EP); $10 (without EP); or pay what you can.