Now, if you know me, none of this is surprising. I often write in my LiveJournal, and I often quote Greg Brown, and yes, the song I most often quote is “Rexroth’s Daughter” — because every stanza is amazing!!!
So I was going along, being me, business as usual, when all of a sudden, an LJ friend said unto me:
“I know Greg Brown from Hadestown… which, Oh em jee, Claire, is just the most wonderful folk rock opera ever. It’s a retelling of the Orpheus story. He lures Eurydice to the underworld in “Hey Little Songbird.” I heard this song and fell in love with him. And bought the album and listen to it constantly.”
After hearing “Hey, Little Songbird,” I sort of gallumphed over to Amazon and laid all my pretty pennies down in a row.
“MINE!” I said, like the seagulls in Little Nemo.
It was still downloading when I had to leave for work; I was never so eager to get home in my whole life. In the meantime, I spread the good news via Facebook. James Enge (oh, look! He has a Wikipedia page! Adorable.) saw my ALL CAPS ANNOUNCEMENTS and actually bought the album and listened to the whole thing before I had a chance!
Later that night, my buddy Pattyhawk (she of the mad interviewing skillz) came over and we sat on my bed and watched the iTunes visualizer make trippy patterns for an hour while listening to it.
Do you think I was idle all this while? Ha! What do you take me for?
My LJ friend who’d introduced the whole thing to me — Francesca Forrest, writer — and I had been in cahoots, scheming and conspiring to bring Hadestown to Black Gate Magazine. ‘Cause, seriously, folks. This is a versatile album. I play it all day in my bookstore, my friend Fetch works out to it on the treadmill, Amal listens to it twice a day (as she mentioned in her review last Monday), and the Great Robot Overlord John O’Neill likes to scare himself with the fathoms-deep black velvet smother that is Mr. Hades’ voice.
Like I said. Versatile. We want you all to love it too.
To that end, Francesca introduced me to Peter Nevins via a series of emails. Peter Nevins did the album art for Hadestown, but his coolness does not end there. Oh, no. Not only does he work in linocuts, charcoal and pencil for our viewing pleasure (he keeps an Etsy shop here), he’s ALSO a musician! Be still, heart. STILL, I SAY!
Gabriel Guma says about his songwriting:
“My own guess is that if you taught a very impressionable 17th century troubadour all about Syd Barrett, Donovan, Stephin Merritt, and the Lower East Side as it is today, he would most likely end up sounding something like this inimitable man.”
Peter was friendly in his response email, and I was impertinent and asked him a bunch of questions, which he handled very well and whittled down to size. Which brings us to this interview.
An Interview with Artist Peter Nevins
BLACK GATE: Where did you begin?
PETER NEVINS: In San Francisco, in first grade, I made a Triceratops out of porcelain clay. I moved away before it was fired and my old teacher sent it to me later. This showed me the value of my art, and it felt really good to receive it later.
As time developed I wanted to be a comic book artist and I was proceeding on that track, until I met my friend Neil Osborn, a very cosmic guy, and we started collaborating when we were about 16, on posters for local Marin County bands, the sons and daughters of famous 60’s bands from SF. I realized through Neil that a comic book style was not where it was at in the big picture and I proceeded on a more mind expanding trip.
BG: Where did you train?
PN: A great California painter, Chester Arnold helped me a lot by letting me drop into classes he was teaching at the community college.
This was after I had tried and dropped out of University of California at Santa Cruz (not before meeting, playing with, and being inspired to play more music by Gillian Welch) and California College of Art. Both schools left me uninspired artistically, because I never found that god-like teacher I could look up to. Kind of a high standard.
Anyway, I finally found inspiration at the community college, practically for free, and one day Chester gave me a black canvas to start with, so I would learn to paint the light, and the negative space, rather than blocking everything in and painting lines around it. This, I can honestly say, was the most significant 30 seconds of my art education, and did more than years elsewhere. It is obvious when you look at the Hadestown stuff that I am still inspired by this idea.
BG: How did the Hadestown images come about?
PN: Well, Claire, I’m glad you asked that question. (Ha.) We had already done the cover for The Brightness, which, after trying 20 different directions, was basically taken from a drawing I had done ages before. I did a linocut of a girl with a wineglass, also ages ago, and Anaïs saw it, liked it and sometime during The Brightness cover process, bought a copy from me.
It hung on her kitchen wall for a year or three in her place in Vermont where she was fine tuning the opera, and one day, she realized that the linocut could be Persephone. She got in touch and asked me to illustrate the other 5 main characters in the same style.
We talked a lot about the style and how to make the characters look both ancient and modern (as in 30’s style modern!) and what particular motif would set each character apart.
We didn’t have any particular way to describe the Eurydice character but then I remembered a plaster sculpture from around 1910 I had seen in the Musée de Beaux Arts here in Montréal, where I’ve been for awhile.
The Eurydice illustration is loosely based on that, and for good measure, I also included the flower the sculpture is holding, as it seemed like each one of our characters needed a kind of token, emblem, or motif. I think on the sculpture it was a poppy, which worked well for me and expressed my love of opium-inspired art from the art nouveaux and 20’s mystical eastern spiritualism.
At first, this flower seemed to come out of left field to Anaïs, but she stayed open to it being there and soon she invented the connection between the poppy and Eurydice’s tragic fall into Hades arms (spoiler alert!).
This was the inspiration and start of the song, “Flowers,” so the songs were actually still coming together while the art was being made. When Anaïs called me to tell me about the new song related to the drawing, it was probably about my favourite part of the whole process.
Later, as the album was nearing completion, I think the drawings/linocuts were all done, but they had to be converted to a square format to fit the CD shape. This was a whole ‘nother job, and during the process, I refined all the images a bit and collaborated with the great Brian Grunert, the art director (and 2 time Grammy winner) on the form that the cover would take. I think we were both listening to the nearly finished mixes of the record on repeat for ages while finishing this project. There were also several conference calls with Anaïs, Brian and me and many late night talks between us individually.
BG: What about your music?
PN: I’m currently planning my second tour of Europe and trying to complete a full length album. I still haven’t made a whole record I’m proud of, but when I do I will promote it and have adventures that way. I am trying to make a very mystical-poetic record with a sustained timeless mood and unified aesthetic maybe like a new spookier Donovan.
BG: What are you reading?
PN: I don’t know what happened, but I lost my copy of Lord Dunsany’s A Dreamer’s Tales the other day. It’s around here somewhere; it just means I have to straighten up the studio/room/house again… Anyway, that book is a perennial favourite and takes me where I like to go. I pretty much stick to pre-WW1 material, as it helps preserve my idealism.
Don’t you want to go out and buy a bunch of prints to go with your album of Hadestown?
Yeah. Me, too.
The interviewer would like to thank Peter Nevins for his friendliness and accommodating replies, Francesca Forrest for her timely comments in my LiveJournal entry and for all her introductory emails between interviewer and artist, and especially Amal El-Mohtar for writing an incredible review of Hadestown for Black Gate (that was not, as mine would have been, all caps and incoherent) in the middle of also writing her Doctorate and her Nebula spotlight and her cool poem about the girls with the sewn-up mouths, as well as all her other Goblin Fruit duties.
You folks are great. I love sharing the beautiful things in life with you.