Valentine Wolfe is a gothic metal band that I first encountered at the final Wicked Faire last year. Since then, I’ve been able to catch snippets of their performances at various Jeff Mach Events over the past year, but finally got to listen and dance to a full set of theirs—at a Harry Potter convention of all places—during the goth night at MISTI-Con 2017. The band is based out of North Carolina and consists of Sarah Black, whose soprano vocals give their music its ethereal quality, and Braxton Ballew, who rocks out on the electric upright bass. Their music is particularly popular in both the goth and steampunk scenes, and they perform at a number of conventions up and down the east coast. To get an idea of what their music is like, check out the video of their rendition of “Annabel Lee” below and read on for my interview with Sarah and Braxton:
You describe your music as Victorian Chamber Metal. What aspects of the Victorian era influence your music?
Sarah: I love studying the history and culture of the Victorian Era. Many of my favorite authors come from that time period, and many of my current living friend authors know so much about that time period. I love to listen to authors talk about this topic at the conventions I attend! I know Edgar Allan Poe really wrote a little before the Victorian, but he has had a huge influence on our work. The Victorians indulged in a dichotomy of exhibitionism and inhibitions when it came to so many aspects of daily living. It is so interesting for me to look at what has changed since then and what is still largely the same. It really surprises me sometimes!
Braxton: At this stage, mourning customs, literature, and the sensationalism of storytelling: there’s a great book called The Invention of Murder that’s really inspiring. But in general, the horror literature of the 19th century is material we can keep returning to again and again. In terms of music of the 19th century, art songs, particularly ones by Franz Schubert, inspire and inform our music. But in terms of classical music, I’m much more in love with the 18th century!
When did you first become interested in Gothic literature? Was it always something you knew you wanted to tie into your music?
Sarah: I have always been a huge reader. When I was younger, my parents would sometimes have to limit my reading time so I could venture outside and run around. I started off reading children’s versions of some of the classics, but then of course I needed more! I loved stories with female characters in them before I ever even really noticed that there was a difference between male and female authors. Upon learning there was in fact a difference, I wanted to seek out books by female authors (and I have a whole side rant about female composers as well). I love Mary Shelley and I have been hugely inspired by her work and her whole life. She wasn’t afraid to step outside the normal bounds of propriety and she inspires me to try to do the same. Whenever I start hearing a little voice in my head warning me about what society might think of some of my choices, I ask myself, WWMSD? And now I love seeking out newer female authors because they can write about things that even Mary Shelley couldn’t tackle. Exciting times indeed!
Braxton: I don’t know that it was a conscious choice, in the sense of one day we just decided to do this. We scored a one-act play called Lamplight and Shadow, an education/biography program about Edgar Allan Poe, that led to re-visiting the source material. I was shocked at how much better it was than I remembered—might be an odd thing to say, but it had been years since I’d read much Poe. In terms of emotional impact, those works were the gateways to the music I dream of composing.
What is your lyric-writing process, especially for your literary-inspired songs? How do you decide when to add some of your own words to the source material, as you do throughout “Annabel Lee” and in the chorus of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”?
Sarah: We considered setting the poem of Annabel Lee exactly as it was, but since we were already doing that with several of Poe’s other works on the album Once Upon a Midnight, we decided to go in a slightly different direction for Annabel Lee. I wanted to tell the story of Poe’s relationship with Virginia. So we used some material from Poe’s letters to Virginia and also to her mother during their courtship. This is an example of a song that when we first wrote it, we thought it was too simple to really work. But sometimes simplicity in the melody and harmonies can really help the lyrics shine through!
When we were writing Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, Braxton told me that he loved to imagine the poem as a ghost story! I loved that idea so that is how that one came about.
Braxton: I don’t write lyrics—Sarah has a great sense of what will fit her voice and what will be comfortable for her to sing. As she said, I suggest themes, ideas, and I might suggest the occasional line or two. We’ve got a new song in process, and when I heard the demo, there was all sorts of lyrics that I didn’t feel worked very well. I’d written all of them!
Can you tell me a bit about your most recent album, The Nightingale: A Gothic Fairytale, and its literary influences?
Sarah: We decided to base it upon The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen. We knew we wanted to put our own spin on it, but we also really love the old stories. We also really wanted to set our story in the Alnwick Poison Garden in England. The photos of that place have captured our imaginations and we really wanted to explore a story set in such a lush environment. So all the characters in the story got a name based on a poisonous plant. The CD comes with an additional booklet including the story and beautiful artwork by Jacob Wenzka. You can check out some of his art on his Facebook page.
He also was our artist for Once Upon a Midnight. We wrote a whole album featuring some of the poems and short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Jacob provided his artistic talent to beautifully craft riveting images to go along with our little story and we put a graphic novel together with our music. That was quite a fun project to work on! You can listen to the music for that on our website. The graphic novel/CD is currently out of print, but the digital versions of it are available on the flash drive we sell on our website.
Braxton: Well, our most recent work is actually A Child’s Bestiary. It seems to have flown under the radar a bit, and I think it’s our best album yet. We still need to update our bio! But for Nightingale, as Sarah said, it was pretty much all Hans Christen Anderson. On Bestiary, we set Alfred, Lord Tennyson (The Kraken), Edgar Allan Poe returns (Ouroboros), and Le Fee Verte was really inspired by the Decadents, especially Baudelaire.
Who is your favorite poet? Are there some poets whose works are easier to set to music than others?
Sarah: Edgar Allan Poe. I have set music to Poe, Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Mary Shelley, among others. I set the poetry that most appeals to me so I’m probably subconsciously choosing the poets that would work the best with my musical aesthetic. My musical aesthetic has been shaped in part by spending my early childhood years in Indonesia and experiencing the rich musical traditions there. I also started piano lessons at a young age and began playing through the classical pieces. Then I began absorbing the metal later. So all of these influences affect the way I write music and I think it affects the way I set lyrics in that I try to convey the passions and emotions the author has written, but it is colored by my own ideas of what I think sounds good.
Braxton: What Sarah said, but it’s really hard to choose just one. I really like Baudelaire, Dante, W. H. Auden, and Dorothy Parker.
And lastly, what’s your favorite book (gothic or not)?
Sarah: I love so many books that it is hard to choose just one. However, let me choose this time a book that we’d love to use as a reference for one of our musical projects someday. I don’t know when we will do this because we are currently working on a different project. Our current project/next album will be entitled The Elegiac Repose and we hope to release it in September of this year. In this collection of songs we’ll be exploring Victorian mourning rituals, how people cope with death, and what mysteries might lie beyond. We intend to cover some pretty dark themes but we also hope to emerge with a message of sweetness in the sadness and perhaps will show that one can pass through grief and come out the other side with some scars maybe but also new appreciation for life. The book I want to choose though is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We’d love to do a whole opera or project around that story. I’m not sure when the time will be right for it, but I am already looking forward to exploring more of Mary Shelley’s world.
Braxton: I’ve always loved The Once and Future King and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I think Dracula is so ingrained in the public imagination that it’s far, far better than you’d think. I’m re-reading Frankenstein for reasons stated.
And of course, on returning from MISTI-Con, a re-read of Harry Potter is in order—I LOVE those books!
You can learn more about Valentine Wolfe from their website, www.valentinewolfe.com. Be sure to check out their music, and let me know what you think in the comments!