Here is Part One of our interview with the Chicago-based duo, Eileen. Today, we meet the duo and dive more deeply into the song “I’ll Lay You Down,” which we introduced in the previous post. MBM: Who is Eileen? How did you come together?
Christine Stulik: Eileen is Christine Stulik and Becky Poole, and we formed in the winter of 2011…
Becky Poole: …when we were performing in The Pirates of Penzance, with The Hypocrites. [Editor’s note: This tendency to finish one another’s sentences may have happened somewhat more often than is visible below…]
MBM: So, you’re both actors?
BP: Yes, I’m also a sketch comedian and a voice-over actor, but it’s better to say that we’re both performing artists. That’s kind of what you do when you’re trying to make a living at this. It’s sort of putting a few different things together. I’m teaching Wiggleworms [a children’s music program run by Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music] right now, and I teach all-girls comedy workshops. I’m also a comedy writer with a partner in L.A., Noelle Romano. It’s ridiculous the amount of things you have to do to pay rent, but it’s so worth it.
CS: I would say acting in plays is my main gig, outside of music. I’m trying to write more, and I freelance with some popular magazines.
MBM: And you’re performing murder ballads now…
The Hypocrites ensemble, Stulik on banjo, Poole on accordion
CS: We started when we got done with Pirates. That was the most music I had ever played, and I wanted to keep it up after the show closed. We performed this traditional operetta without the traditional orchestra—all of the actors had to sing while accompanying themselves or each other on a variety of instruments. That was the first time I had played banjo before an audience. Becky had this collection of material, and we realized that our voices sounded really cool together, and we had these skills that could help us perform the music in a new way.
BP: We got together and rehearsed, but we didn’t start performing for 9 months or a year. I had worked on only a few murder ballads when I lived in Seattle in 2010, and I wanted to revisit them. This was the perfect opportunity.
MBM: So, murder ballads became the focus because of Becky’s songwriting, and…
CS: We’re really interested in folk music. When we got together, it was something that Becky was passionate about. I had heard a few murder ballads, and I had always liked them. I liked the darkness. We identified a passion to re-tell these stories in our own voices. We began by re-telling the ones that Becky had written and the ones that I had previously heard. We wanted to explore how they sounded in our voices.
BP: I think our interest in folk music, and murder ballads in particular, ties in to our theatrical backgrounds, because of their storytelling nature and the narratives themselves. You can definitely inhabit a character, even if you’re not coming from that character’s point of view. The storyteller, the narrator, is also an interesting role to perform.
MBM: So how does your work on murder ballads fit into the work you’re doing in other areas…comedy and theater and teaching music to pre-schoolers?
BP: Really. [Laughter] The folk music elements definitely relate, particularly in terms of learning songs for Wiggleworms. The style is similar. But I don’t look at murder ballads as something I want to put comedy into. When we do the songs, our natural personalities will come out, and there may be laughter there. But murder ballads are something entirely different from our comedic work, and they hit the darker themes for me. I would say, though, that the experience of women in comedy and the obstacles we face as women in theater factor into how I perceive murder ballads.
MBM: Let’s talk specifically about “I’ll Lay You Down.” When did you write the song? Where were you and what was going on?
BP: I was in Seattle, and I was on a theater artist’s residency at Smoke Farm, in Arlington, WA. It’s a farm on a river. The point of the residency was to give you room to work all day on whatever you wanted, and then come back and present it to the group in the evening.
I was thinking about writing a murder ballad from a woman’s point of view. I was sitting by rocks, bleached by the sun, along the [Stillaguamish] River and I started writing it. I shared it up in the barn later. It tumbled out and I didn’t edit it too much. Looking back on how the stanzas work, I realized that I was falling into common murder ballad tropes. In this case, I was resonating with “Omie Wise,” based on a field recording I had heard of a woman singing that song. It sounded like she was just sitting in her kitchen.
MBM: I noticed that there are no gender signals in the song—both perpetrator and victim are genderless. Have you ever heard a man sing it? How does that feel or how do you think it would feel?
BP: I never noticed that! No, I haven’t. That’s interesting. I did a very “male” thing; I assumed the subject was me. That’s insane! That’s never occurred to me.
CS: We asked a question when we were trying to re-write some of the old, traditional murder ballads. Is it enough just to sing them in a woman’s voice? I think the conclusion we came to was that we had to do more.
BP: It can be really effective and disturbing simply to switch who is telling the story, like when Tori Amos sings that Eminem song, “Bonnie and Clyde.” It’s chilling to hear her sing it.
But yeah, what Christine said.
“I’ll Lay You Down” is the first murder ballad I wrote. I feel like some of the choices I made might come down to being a character performer. I felt for this one, I’m going to write as if I’m the one who did this. [Here is Amos’s version of “Bonnie & Clyde]
MBM: I noticed that you started the song after the deed. Did that make it easier to write?
BP: I don’t know, honestly. I remember writing about the act. I remember being there and thinking about an old lover and what I would be doing if I was holding this man and just rolling him into the river after I had killed him. And, it wasn’t a revenge thing. It was like “I helped you.” It’s like almost stopping the pain, or the hurt that we put each other through (in that particular verse).
Right after that moment when I had a real, visual image of the scene I went to jokiness and word-play—“the crabs and the gulls will baptize your brow.” I had a clear, visual, visceral response, and then I went right to writing a joke almost.
MBM: Were you looking to break the tension or seek some relief?
BP: Maybe. I remember feeling really gross when I first started writing these. What am I putting out into the world? Why am I putting out something so negative? But I feel that they are coming primarily from a place of curiosity about point-of-view, specifically women’s, and they are also inquiring about why these songs last. So, I’m driven by the questions. I’m not just doing them to sing a song about murder. But, in this one in particular, I do remember feeling like I was stepping into something that I knew was going to get icky, and that might be why I wrote about the actor and not the act.
MBM: Nature seems to play a big role in the song. Do you think that the protagonist in “I’ll Lay You Down” commits a natural or unnatural act?
BP: Wow. I feel like it probably felt like a natural progression. In most murder ballads—in the ones I was attracted to—there is a river, and it’s off in the woods somewhere. That environment sort of lends itself to the murder ballad.
CS: I didn’t help write the song, but in performing it, it strikes me as a cycle of life kind of thing—very easy and natural. The structure of the verses and the repetition of it reinforce this. Everything is revealed slowly in each verse. The song is really interesting in that way.
BP: It’s interesting that we talk about this. The Smoke Farm residency and my time in Seattle really made me take myself a bit more seriously, in a good way. It made me think about actually being an artist and trying to make it happen for real, because there were a lot of big changes at this time of my life.
photo from Eileen
MBM: You’ve said elsewhere that Eileen aims to preserve and replenish the folk music genre, and that you seek to disrupt the emphasis in murder balladry on the woman as victim. How are you doing this?
CS: I think it’s pretty simple at first. In some traditional ballads, there’s just a very clear victim. So, we’ve gone on to find creative new ways to tell her story, not just switch perpetrator and victim. It’s just a bit of exercise at this point, where we take a murder ballad like “Pretty Polly,” for example, and instead of ending it at his remorse, jail time, or walking away, we find a way to switch the focus back to her. We have a few variations, but that’s how we do that.
BP: One reason why these songs are interesting to me is because some murder ballads are just out there in the open—“Frankie andJohnny,” “Down by the River,” or “Hey Joe.” Everybody knows them and they’re on in the background in malls. It’s clear that they’re out there. There are others, like “Caleb Meyer,” that are more women-centered. But, our original interest was just the balance. I didn’t hear those women-centered ones often. Now, in researching them, it’s been really great to come across other examples with female protagonists.
CS: “Caleb Meyer” would be a great cover for us to try. On the other hand, the reason we didn’t tweak “Wind and Rain” [“Two Sisters”] is part of our preserving the genre. We also want to be faithful.
BP: I remember having misgivings about that one [“Wind and Rain”], but it’s been really great. Otherwise, I think things would get gimmicky. Christine’s appreciation for the more traditional music has been great for us.
CS: It’s a totally great fit from my perspective, too. Without my interaction with Becky, I probably wouldn’t have thought I was capable of doing anything more than covers. As a result of working together, I’ve also started writing. I’ve realized that we’ve been really good for each other [At this point in our phone interview, the band reported a high five had been exchanged.].
MBM: What’s the trick to “preserving” and “disrupting” at the same time?
BP: I’m too excited to talk!
CS: I think it helps to think about what our instruments bring to these songs, and what our voices bring. They are simple. We don’t try to layer too much on. We don’t try to top what’s already been done. We’re pretty staunch in our idea of folk music, and that helps us to focus on other things; mainly the stories, that it’s about story telling. Whatever we’re doing with the story, we’re staying very true to a voice. We sound like a common voice in all of these songs. That’s challenging. There’s a tone to murder ballads that’s hard to pinpoint, but I think that’s what you’re hearing.
MBM: Are you playing any other genres of music?
CS: Sometimes we’re playing “Weed Smoker’s Dream” from the 1930s. It just sort of fits.
BP: It just sort of fits our instruments and our voices. I learned that in a jug band class. “Why don’t you do right?” It’s a tune by The Harlem Hamfats. We’re thinking about adding to our repertoir as we’re being asked to perform out now, particularly in front of audiences that are not quiet listening audiences. We need to have things that will get people’s attention…
CS: As long as it’s in a minor key, we’ll sing it…. [Laughter, and side discussion about recent digital re-edits of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion, which put it in a major key—consensus that it is an abomination.] I think I would say that our focus on murder ballads is probably a product of our timeline, and not necessarily very indicative of our long term plans. “Omie Homage” (see Part II of the interview) was one of Becky’s earlier pieces tweaking the songs. “Wind and Rain” was a new one for me, and I felt like I needed to start learning my way through the tradition. That’s why we didn’t tamper with that one.
BP: I didn’t want to say “no” to something, so I went along with it.
CS: I just started on a re-write of “Pretty Polly,” but I decided to add four verses at the end. It usually ends with him kicking dirt over her grave and announcing that he’s going to hell. Singing the song as is was really pretty, but wasn’t doing something that someone hadn’t already done. I was encouraged to add these four verses that I’m really excited about. I’m dabbling in magical realism; something that I’m attracted to in literature. It’s simpler than her not being dead, but a different, kind of weirder ending, and then I bring back that final verse.