Monday, July 11, 2016

"Empty Head" by Screaming Females/Marissa Paternoster



ARTIST: Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females
SONG: "Empty Head"
WRITERS: Marissa Paternoster, Michael Abbate, Jarrett Dougherty
ALBUM: Rose Mountain on Don Giovanni Records
YEAR: 2015
SITE: Screaming Females, Marissa Paternoster
BUY: Rose Mountain

If you've never seen Screaming Females live, I highly recommend changing that. Marissa Paternoster, the artist, illustrator, writer, guitarist, and vocalist who fronts the band, took some time to answer a few questions about the existence and evolution of their song, "Empty Head." 

BA: Hey Marissa! Thanks so much for agreeing to be part of the series!

MP: Thank you for thinking of me!

BA: I had the pleasure of seeing you guys last year at the (now closed) Stone Fox in Nashville. This song jumped out at me and has stayed with me since. It's the opening track on your album, Rose Mountain. Was the song written for the record?

MP: "Empty Head" was the first song we wrote for Rose Mountain, but it was the final song we completed. It went through so many iterations and so much change, the initial version is probably two minutes longer than the final one.  

BA: Wow! I watched the Lance Bangs two-part documentary about Screaming Females, which I think was made around the making and release of this album. In that film, you guys talk about writing the music for the songs on Rose Mountain as a band, and then you writing the vocals and lyrics on your own, after the fact. I'd love to hear about how "Empty Head" took shape musically and conceptually.

MP: The first version of "Empty Head" had sort of a B-52’s/Pylon feel, Jarrett was playing some sort of four on the floor beat and I was playing this high-pitched squawking sort of nonsense. I think Mike was the one who finally introduced the main riff, and then we were like, “Let’s throw all that other stuff away and build the song around this riff.” 

BA: I'd like to talk about the lyrics for a second. It's refreshing to hear words like "cherubim" and "mystic death wars" in a song. You say in the aforementioned documentary that you rarely write songs about one specific thing. What is this song addressing in the lyrics, for you?

MP: The chorus in "Empty Head" is a self-effacing tirade against my own absent-mindedness. I also interpret it as a critique of humanity’s foolishness, and how it seems that the powers that be would rather incur a penalty as severe as death rather than take responsibility for our foolish actions.  

BA: When you brought the lyrics and vocals back to Mike and Jarrett, did they love what you wrote? Do they ever contribute to that part of the process, or give you feedback?

MP: From what I can recall everyone was excited about the melody I brought back to practice for this song.  

BA: Had you been playing "Empty Head" live for a while when you recorded it, or was it new in the studio?

MP: We had been playing some alternative versions of it live for a while before we recorded it for Rose Mountain.  

BA: How much did Matt Bayles contribute to this song, as a producer? Any key things that he suggested?

MP: Like I mentioned before, we had a ton of different versions of this song. Some of them only had small changes which one probably wouldn’t notice if it weren’t pointed out to them. I believe that Matt helped us pick a final composition.  

BA: Does this song fit into the album as a specific piece of a story? I know you were processing and writing about your health struggles during this album. The song "Hopeless" addresses some of your feelings about your body and its issues with fibromyalgia. Is this song part of that narrative at all? (By the way, I'm so sorry about all of that. I'm sorry for the fatigue and pain.)

MP: I interpret fragments of this song to be an acknowledgement and nod to weakness, to accepting weakness, and the want to not die a fool’s death in denying that fragility. It’s about the want to be gracious and powerful, to acknowledge how small we are, and to be humbled by that knowledge.  

BA: Has the song changed at all in the live setting? 

MP: We’re pretty loyal to the composition that’s on Rose Mountain - but who knows what the future will bring!

BA: When I saw you play last year, you were seated at the merch table during the opening bands' sets, drawing a detailed, very meticulous piece of art. Similar images appear in the video for "Empty Head." Who are those characters?

MP: We had written a narrative for the puppets to act out for the "Empty Head" video but the artist didn’t have time to make it all come together. There were definitely supposed to be more characters but since what you see is only a fraction of what was planned, the monsters in the video are sort of random. It’s a beautiful video nonetheless, but the creatures in the video don’t really represent much of anything.  

BA: What's your favorite song right this minute?

MP: “Atom Jack” by Drive Like Jehu.  

BA: Thank you for your words, and for your great contributions to music and art. I'm so grateful to make your acquaintance! I hope we cross paths on the road sometime.

MP: Me too! Thanks!  

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