From musical child prodigy to asylum inmate, Emilie Autumn has had one hell of a journey. Seen as an enfant terrible by her music teachers and, later, some major players in the industry, the Californian spent her youth playing violin on the world’s concert hall stages.
More recently, she’s defied stuffy stereotypes of the classically trained musician by wearing ripped stockings, singing about self-mutilation and abuse, and throwing in a dollop of cheeky vaudeville entertainment for good measure. As Emilie embarks on her Asylum tour of Europe and Australia, Bizarre caught up with her to talk about playing with Courtney Love, writing an autobiographical novel, and surviving mental illness.
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The first glimpse I get of Emilie is a far cry from the cinch-waisted, crazy-haired, violin-wielding seductress she portrays on stage. Hugging her knees on a sofa in the office where our interview’s about to happen, she’s wearing a cute knitted deerstalker hat (with kitty ears protruding from the top), a floaty sequined dress and a pair of striped socks.
She looks like a little girl who’s raided her mother’s wardrobe to play dress-up. She’s also super-awake for someone who hauled arse from the States two days ago, with all the equipment for her ‘Victoriandustrial’ Asylum tour.
And as always, there’s a hand-painted heart just below her right eye. “I draw this on every day,” says Emilie, pointing to her perfect porcelain cheekbone. “It’s a protection symbol, and reminds me that I’m a flesh-and-blood person who can be broken – not some magical fucking unicorn.”
It’s easy to get caught up in Emilie’s ‘mixed-up girl in a mixed-up world’ vibe, and it’s one of the many reasons her fans, or ‘Muffins’ as they like to be called, have fallen for her. But while the 30-year-old singer-songwriter and violinist oozes vulnerability, she’s nobody’s fool, with a protective coat of armour that’s been earned the hard way.
Emilie began her musical journey at four years old, when she demanded to learn the violin. She spent her early years practising for up to nine hours a day, forfeiting the carefree childhood of most of her peers, and dropped out of class aged nine to be home-schooled and pursue her dream of becoming a world-class violin soloist.
“I had no social life or friends,” she recalls. “But without that experience, I wouldn’t have my work ethic now. I need to be better every day. I make all the costumes for the show sets, right down to the last perfectly placed sequin, because I need to know it’s done right.”
No doubt an obsessive focus on music helped the young Emilie to drown out the intense daily symptoms of bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression, a condition characterised by severe mood swings), which she’s brutally open about – and also helped her to survive abuse from an early age.
Researching for this interview, I stumble across forum posts and interview snippets that suggest Emilie was raped, so I take a deep breath and ask her about it. “I was six years old when abuse first took place, but I’ve been fucked over plenty of times in my life,” she says. “Dealing with being raped was difficult because I was worried that telling someone would hurt the people around me. I was also hearing voices in my head every day and all night, thanks to the disorder, and it was terrifying. I tried to make the world into what I wanted it to be using songs.”
It’s not a closed subject, but as Emilie quickly begins to talk about her deep connection to Ophelia, the character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who drowned herself (a link referenced by her third album, 2006’s Opheliac), I sense we’re not destined to linger on such painful memories. It seems logical that, in order for Emilie to deal with her past traumas, her music plays a cathartic role in helping her vent her inner turmoil.
In 2002 she released her first full-length album, Enchant, a heady mix of new age, pop and trip-hop chamber music, through her own label, Traitor Records. She formed the company after becoming disillusioned with a major label’s desire to change her for commercial purposes. It’s this independent streak that caught the eye of the car-crash diva of rock, Courtney Love, who invited Emilie to join her on her 2004 America’s Sweetheart tour.
“I don’t regret touring with Courtney...” Emilie says hesitantly. Do I sense a ‘but’ coming? She smiles. “I wasn’t interested at first. I didn’t know much about her music, and I like to be the one in the spotlight, but she kept writing to me and I finally caved in and went for the adventure. I did backing vocals for some of her songs. I learned a lot… such as the fact that seeing people taking drugs up close is unattractive. It’s pathetic, and the mess is revolting. Although it’s funny, because I’m on so many prescription drugs now that I might as well be on crack.”
Perplexed by Courtney’s substance abuse, and the limp response to the singer’s album, Emilie returned to the States determined to get back on track – but her battle with bipolar disorder was coming to a shattering climax. “The final straw was discovering that I was pregnant, despite being on the pill,” she says. “I have tocophobia – fear of childbirth – so I was freaking out. I wanted to cut myself open. I was on new medication, and getting pregnant when you’re bipolar amplifies the illness.”
Emilie made the difficult decision to have an abortion, a process she describes as “brutal, but necessary” because, “I could never give a child this genetic ticking time bomb.” Soon after, she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and lay down on her bathroom floor, waiting to die. It was her dog that finally raised the alarm, barking and attracting attention from the neighbours.
A week later, Emilie found herself locked up on a psychiatric ward in LA, on suicide watch. “Suddenly, I was incredibly on my own,” she says with a hint of sadness. “No one tried to break me out or contact me, and I wasn’t allowed to call anyone.
Now, I watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and realise it’s actually a pretty accurate portrayal of a modern-day asylum. We didn’t get to do any exercise and we weren’t allowed to play musical instruments – or even go to the goddamn toilet in private.”
Through the thin white cardigan that Emilie is wearing, I can just about see her cell-number tattoo on her upper arm. She says it’s a way of owning that period of her life, rather than forgetting that it ever happened. “I became a compulsive truth-teller!” she laughs. “I managed to bribe a nurse into giving me a red crayon so I could write a diary while I was inside, and that’s how the book happened.”
Her autobiographical novel, The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls, doesn’t pull any punches in revealing the bleak realities of being monitored 24/7 on a US psychiatric ward. It also merges reality with the fictional diary entries of ‘Emily’, an inmate of a Victorian insane asylum.
“It’s a tale that spans 200 years, and it just started in my head,” explains Emilie. “When I read over the book, I realised that there’s an extreme blurring of lines between ‘Emily’ and me. It’s also different from most other studies of bipolar disorder. It’s an account of it while it’s actually happening, and what you have to do to get the fuck out of the funny farm.”
Luckily for the hordes of Emilie Autumn fans, the self-confessed loony chick managed to get better. Now, she’s focused on inviting fans to join her in the alternate reality she calls ‘The Asylum’, a hint of which can be heard on Opheliac (re-released in the US last year and in the UK in February), on her popular website forum and in her theatrical shows.
But how does it feel to be the patron saint of crazy girls and boys? “At first, I found it a little overwhelming,” Emilie admits. “Fans want to show me the scars on their arms and tell me my music has stopped them hurting themselves. I’m not self-important enough to think it’s to do with me directly, but I’m glad that it’s helped them on some level. As for the show, it has to be dramatic, ridiculous and over-the-top to balance out what we’re really talking about. It’s a burlesque way of looking at issues like abuse, self-harm and suicide.”
On hand to spread the message are Emilie’s sideshow girls, The Bloody Crumpets; a motley crew of wild-haired nymphettes who writhe around wearing cheeky Victorian petticoats and deadly smiles.
Emilie is enthusiastic when describing the next stage of her journey. “Opheliac was about me standing up for myself for the first time, because I’ve been notoriously bad at doing that,” she says. “In the show, we have a tea party massacre, with cupcakes and saucers flying everywhere. This is about what happens when the inmates finally join together and fight back against their abusers. I want to make my asylum what an asylum should be – a sanctuary.”
She looks thoughtful for a moment, before adding with a cute smile, “It’s like the dog that’s been beaten all it’s life and then turns around and rips your fucking face off.” This lady has definitely got her bite back.
See more at Emilieautumn.com