This year at the Academy Awards, there has been a concerted effort to honor women and their stories. Reflecting on how many years the Oscars have existed, the attempt still feels inadequate, but it is never too late to strive for better representation for all minorities. One nomination that stood out was a short documentary produced by Netflix called Heroin(e). As it is heavily alluded to in its title, the film shows both sides to the term, with strong women fighting the opioid epidemic on all sides in Huntington, West Virginia–the opioid overdose capital of the world. More than heartwarming, this is a tale of real change that has the potential to have a lasting positive impact not only on West Virginia, but also the rest of the country.
The homophone works similarly for Claire McKeown, a Wagnerian opera singer that leads the folk troupe, Honey Child. The band doesn’t really fit in any category, featuring broad baroque pop influences on their eponymous record that came out in early February. McKeown’s powerful vocals tower benevolently overhead, while her bandmates create a choir over acoustic instrumentation. They have adopted the genre “heroine folk,” as it represents their completely female lineup, but it also resonates on a personal level for McKeown, reflecting her years of addiction.
McKeown’s first introduction to Classical music was through “What’s Opera Doc?,” one of the most popular episodes of Warner Bros’ program Merrie Melodies. You may remember the star, Bugs Bunny, who dies dramatically at the hands of Elmer Fudd after a chase set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Though it was an obvious parody, (“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” Fudd chants throughout,) McKeown’s interest had been piqued. When her father left her family at age thirteen, she made the decision to study and pursue opera as a career.
McKeown cites painful moments like this one as the foundation of many of her most formative life decisions. She began taking voice lessons at sixteen, continuing to study for about eight years after her high school graduation through some of her darkest times, on which she now looks back with levity. “I graduated high school and fell immediately into being a heroin addict, as most people do right?” She never lost sight of her dream of being an accomplished opera singer and conductor, but she only had a hazy idea of what her life would be like without a change…if she remained alive, that is. With conviction, she made a conscious decision to stop using.
While she tells me this story, she grins and laughs as if it were an embarrassing childhood story, like wetting the bed. Not to make light of her experiences; she instead sees silver linings. “I learned so much from being a heroin addict! You learn how to completely throw your entire life into something.” So she began to channel her energy into her career. She is uniquely talented, with an incredible vocal range and the power to sing over an 80-piece orchestra or larger, making her one of a historically niche group of vocalists able to perform as a Wagnerian heroine. This led her success on stage, until a fateful preview of the Ring Cycle at the Orange County Opera.
Until this point, McKeown had found joy for herself in her craft, but this milestone presented her with another turning point. A preview of Wagner’s symphony was put on for the owners and major donors of the Opera interested in funding a full production of it. That crowd tends to be a fairly homogeneous group of wealthy, old, white, Christian, and conservative men–everything McKeown isn’t (except white!). For the first time she truly considered her audience and realized she wanted to entertain “freaks like [her],” choosing in that moment to quit opera altogether. This, like most of her other life-altering decisions, was difficult to make; after all, she left behind a promising career that she had spent many years of her life working toward. Though she knew it wasn’t all for naught, it still led to a deep depression that drew her to methamphetamines. She credits one particularly harrowing night as one of the most important moments for her as a songwriter. Induced by a cocktail of speed and sleeping pills, she found herself having a short conversation with the devil.
This connection between her pain and her art is special, and something she’s grateful for discovering. “I don’t know what it was, but I know that night I was gifted with the ability to write music. It was probably already in me but until then I had never allowed myself to see it. And now I feel so lucky.”
She never released that particular song, even when she was involved with some local bands. With Dirt Bird, she continued to flex her classically trained muscles. As part of the electro pop outfit, Afternoons, she got a brief taste of local fame. But both bands eventually broke up, and from the way McKeown skirts around the story, it was not a tidy ending.
Alas, when one door closes, another opens, and in the aftermath of those groups, the origins of Honey Child began to come together. With more freedom to create on her own terms, the new project came to embody much of McKeown’s exuberant spirit. More importantly, she knows best how to showcase her voice and the voices of her six bandmates given her experience writing choral arrangements. The debut album is filled with heartbreaking ballads, guided by her operatic lead through pop-structured tracks. “…And So Goodnight,” for example, resembles a lullaby with a Wurlitzer pulsing underneath. A set of keys accompanies the choir on the album’s lead single, “Gotta Wait Another Night,” an earworm that is more anxious than patient for the dawn. But by the time the sun begins to rise, our object of affection has not returned home as she had sung about so expectantly. There seems to be a dark consequence implied in the video for the track, where McKeown wades into the sea in full Victorian dress and a powdered wig, her friend shown ahead, framed helplessly by a wave.
Their live show is all but a tangible experience, with live voices and acoustic instruments heard without distortion. Their troupe is comprised of McKeown, Claire Boutelle, Aimee Jacobs, Danielle Mandel, Dayna Richards, Jacquelyn Sky, and Cynthia Zitter with each member playing another instrument as well. McKeown has taken up the guitar as opposed to carrying around Costanza, her trusty Wurlitzer; other live instrumentation includes a harp, harmonium, flute, another guitar, and some percussion. An overhead mic picks up the ensemble, and the resulting sounds can cause goosebumps. “As cliche as it sounds, it isn’t like anything that you’ve really ever experienced before,” she tells me. This was undoubtedly the case for their recent performance at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, where a real puppet show happened live during their set. “Puppet shows are my audience, funerals and puppet shows!” she laughs, reaffirming her great sense of humor.
Speaking to McKeown is an undeniably enjoyable experience. Her demeanor is kind and open, and maintains a level of intersectionality too, with regular checks on her own white privilege. She has an interminable smile, even when discussing less than joyous topics. It is as if she is a completely different person than she used to be, and even she would admit it; she tells me she was enlightened by a Vipassana retreat, a ten-day meditation with no interpersonal communication meant to turn one’s focus inward. “Nothing in my life is the same after that.” All the silent reflection helped her to realize why it was that she used drugs in the first place, as a celebration of chaos and self-hatred. But McKeown today is proud, and so excited for more of her new music to come out that she already has album number two in the can.
Her disposition was tested during the 2016 election, though, where a rich, old, white man worshipped by conservatives and Christians was elected our president. She wrote a song in the time just after his inauguration called “Sleepy Hands” that conveys a hopeless loss of control, but it ends with a reassurance: “There’s only one way out, that’s through it.” Despite how awful of a man he seems to be, she tells me, “he is only as big as we make him.” As disappointing as it is to have our democracy tested this severely, McKeown believes it is only temporary and is ready to vote to usher in a new era. “The only constant is change,” and she knows part of that change starts with her.
Given the opportunity, McKeown says that she’d move back to Ireland. She has vivid memories of Galway, able to conjure its “salty, moist, borderline fishy smell” that comes from the ocean. Her family had made the sudden move to Los Angeles from the Emerald Isle when she was young, with a conflict known as the Troubles ravaging the country at the time of their emigration. The violent clash put British and Irish identities at odds, but that put McKeown in an interesting position, having grown up speaking both English and Gaelic. As if Irish family histories weren’t confusing enough; in recalling her relative’s relationship with the Celtic language, she stops and adds, “Sometimes in Ireland you don’t know what’s true or just stories,” giving a hearty chuckle. “It’s confusing, but at the same time, does your past define you?” When looking at the entirety of her career, that rhetorical question resonates. As she herself has proven, the answer is an unequivocal no–it is only what you choose to do with your future that matters, and Honey Child has a whole lot in store.
by: Zoë Elaine