San Francisco, Bay Area, alternative gothic post-rock/metal outfit’s KnightressM1 sound is the sonic manifestation of Emily Palen‘s heart – relentless, always reaching for beauty and absolutely driven by intensity. Their music is fascinating in the integration of specific musical frequencies into her compositions. The further her journey with this band, the heavier and heavier the sound gets. I just couldn’t and I didn’t want to ignore such a person with a musical background like that; professional violinist, singer, composer, gothic-metal-amazon-in-her-heart; Therefore, I kindly asked her for an interview in WL//WH that she kindly accepted. Pour some absinthe in your glasses and read on…
Hello Emily! Earlier on September 25, we saw the release of the debut album ‘Dreams and Devastation’ by KnightressM1. The band consists of you, Rob Ahlers (50FOOTWAVE, Kristin Hersh), and Uriah Duffy (Whitesnake). What is the story behind this whole team and how was your path to creating this album shaped?
Hi Mike! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to do this interview with you and also for your incredible support for the release of ‘Dreams and Devastation’. I started KnightressM1 back in 2011 as a way to reframe my own career and essentially put own my voice and violin front and center. I have been a sideperson for many many bands over the years and it came time for me to form my own project, to create my own sound. I started playing with Rob Ahlers pretty early on with KM1, an incredible drummer who I met when we both played with Bonfire Madigan. He really understood what I was going for so we started to play shows and explore the sound of the band. We played with a few bassists over the years and by the time we were ready to go into the studio to actually record the album we enlisted Uriah Duffy to come in and lay down the tracks with us. Once we were rehearsed and set we headed down to Studio 606 and they nailed their tracks down to tape within just a few days. They’re both incredible players and they brought an irreplaceable essential foundation to this album. Then I worked with the engineer and co-producer for the album, John ‘Lou’ Lousteau to layer in all the violin tracks, keys, vocals. Working with Lou was a complete privilege. He helped me to bring this album into a form way past what I could’ve imagined and for that I am so grateful. He’s a master behind the board and in the studio.
My vision for this album was a concept of awakening, reckoning, coming to….I designed it to be multi-dimensional both in consciousness and sound. The songs are statements about my own personal growth through pain, trauma and healing but moreover about humans collectively as a species, our need to step into our power in order to survive this moment in and evolve beyond it. We are inside the eye of the needle right now, will we choose to set ourselves free or will we ask for our own captivity? That is the question. That is the emotional material I worked with for this album. In order to keep the potency of my vision, I was careful to keep every step in integrity from who I worked within the studio to who did the art to who has done PR. Every step of the way I’ve learned something, I’ve gained friends and colleagues, and ultimately was able to create an album, art and videos that far exceeded what I dreamed of.
First, we have presented the official video for ‘Polarity Integrate’, then came the video of ‘Lock & Key’. Here we also now have an amazing new one for ‘Butterfly’. I’d like to ask about the messages in these songs, and about that special note at the end of the ‘Butterfly’ video…
‘Polarity Integrate’ is a song about privilege. I wrote it as a way to confront this horrendous idea that if you struggle in life there’s something wrong with you. I’ve experienced many many years of both financial hardship, emotional struggle, abusive relationships, therapy, healing, confronting my own darkness and also speaking frankly and honestly about the darkness in this world. Some people who come from a more privileged upbringing clearly have not experienced enough hardship to humble them to be compassionate and they swing more towards judgement. This really gets to me not just personally in regards to myself but culturally. Our system is essentially an exploitive abusive culture in which humans are used up, manipulated, gaslit and suppressed and then shamed if we speak out about it. It’s just relentless. I really had to break down a lot of myths within myself to see that just because you go through hardship in whatever form, it is not a reflection of your worth. It is also not something you manifested or created, brought on yourself. This is such a toxic line of thought and one that I believed for many years. I wrote Polarity as a way to say fuck off to that message and to anyone who has a hard time witnessing the pain that this world inflicts. Another way to frame it is living as a polarity integrator. One who experiences a lot of dark to heal it and bring the experience back to neutral, to find another way out, to dismantle the illusion.
‘Lock and Key’ is another song about becoming free from systemic oppression. “Hush now child there is no other way”. We are lulled to sleep with the message that we have no other choice but to accept a subpar life. An existence of broken dreams and struggle. That life just isn’t fair and there’s nothing you can do about it. We can do something about it. We can create a world where everyone is taken care of and gets their needs met. Food, clean water, shelter, kindness and respect. The ability to live in your purpose, to do what you are most passionate about. Think about how powerful and peaceful our communities could be, the world could be. But we have to really face the state we’re in and the level of corruption we are operating under. There’s no other way to liberate ourselves from tyranny but to stand up and be loud about it. “I found my lock and key and I won’t go out silently”. Don’t hide the truth.
‘Butterfly’ is a song about me reckoning with my own power, and not hiding who I am anymore. Often times we all deal with people who want to take from us. Use up our light and our magic and leave us for dead. To stop this in my life I first had to see that I had something special, maybe, just possibly, that I was worthy, and that people found me useful to make themselves feel better. Yet they gave nothing in return. Energy vampires, narcissists, whatever you want to call them. Abusers, what have you. When I saw I had worth, power, light, then I had to see that some folks around me didn’t have my best interest at heart. Next step was to believe in my ability to stand on my own, to be free from that pain and own why I feel I am on this planet along with millions of other bright bright souls. Butterflies, come to restore this world. Perhaps we are bright in order to illuminate the dark, to remind each other we are not alone, that the spark in our chest is for a reason. That what we imagine can be possible is not so far away after all. The note at the end of Butterfly is a dedication to my brother John Edwin who passed away this August. This is an especially tragic loss, one that is complex and difficult to talk about. The song Minutes was written about and for John Ed and little did I know he would pass away just a month before the release of this album, never to hear the song. I filmed the majority of Butterfly just a day after I learned of his passing and used that time on the beach as a ceremony for him and with his spirit to help him crossover into the light. I feel he was there with me and I thank him for his love and presence in my life. He was a polarity integrator. Thank you for asking about that. It was so painful to lose him, and I was losing him my whole life. As much as these songs were written to deal with emotional pain they are in the end about coming into our own, healing up and becoming free of it. Each song was a way for me to change something I needed to change. Alchemy.
You have been a violinist from the age of four – incredible actually. I read that you are a classically-trained virtuoso, who has mastered the violin, piano, singing, and composition. How did you initially start with music and what are the private strength and the inspiration that drives and guides you in this amazing exploration of music?
I grew up in a musical household. My mother is a cellist so in the womb, I was feeling the vibrations of that. My sister is a violinist and my mother taught music in the house. Every day I was hearing this amazing violin literature and I fell in love with it. My mother had a tiny violin in this armoire in their bedroom and I kept getting it out begging her to teach me. Finally, when I turned 4 she said, ok ~ you can play now you’re old enough. Then I started this journey. I was following in my sister’s footsteps quite a bit and by the time I was through two years of music school in college, I was really pulled to come to California. I broke from my classical path and started exploring rock and metal. I’ve always loved heavy music and I have this intensity within that I have to express. Now fronting my own band is so liberating. It’s pure creative freedom and that is actually something that is daunting for me to deal with sometimes. I have the ability to actually be exactly who I want to be musically. Will I do that? Will I be that brave? So I always seek to push my own boundaries and now that’s really heading into a heavier but more expanded direction that fuses this drive to push my own expression and also to allow all of the variation to exist, not to push it just into one corner but to allow all the music I create be there organically. I also have a firm grounding in classical harmony traditions and rhythmic variation but always to serve the music, not to just flash technique. I love being able to create with this instrument, the violin, that is my first language. To be able to embody that in a way that is emotionally so real to me, to do something new. That’s what inspires me. I have always been in love with music though, from the start. I can’t live without it, there is nothing else I want to do. I don’t want to live a life if it’s without music. It is my reason. It was, from a young age, a way for me to share who I was without words. To be honest in my expression without having to put it into words. It’s a power, a way to deal with the most difficult times in life, and a way to share love that is beyond words. It is the only way I have been able to put consciousness into something experiential in this world.
I assume the name KnightressM1 perhaps refers to a ‘code’ or a ‘quest’. Can you tell us all about how you decided on your band name?
Yes, the name! This was such a trip to land on this name. I was trying to come up with names that somehow communicated something about the essence of light, power….transmutation. Everyone had taken the names I was thinking of and they were a bit obvious as well. So this name came to me. I don’t know where it came from but it struck me. Knightress….female knight….M1 is her galactic code. M ~ for Em, my nickname. 1 for unity. Over the years people have mispronounced it, gotten it confused with nitrous oxide, said it’s too complicated, or that I need to make it easier somehow for people to comprehend but….do you know how many metal bands have names that nobody can read? Or how many band names make absolutely no sense? We can go on and on. KnightressM1 is a character, she is my avatar, there is a reason for every piece of that name. You are exactly right, it is code and if I were to listen to the peanut gallery and dumb it down it would lose its power. This is her name. There is no other.
I also found this special note by you on the ‘Dreams and Devastation’ LP – “This album is dedicated to humanity flipping the script on centuries of unnecessary suffering and building a world which takes care of the many instead of the few”-. What is the ideal world you envision?
Yes, this is putting the vision of this album and it’s intention in as succinct a statement as I can manage. I do believe we are in a time right now where the illusions of this world are being revealed. We are seeing who is running the show behind the scenes. People are coming to realize the hidden hands that move all the chess pieces and we are not going to stand for it any longer. We realize as a species that we not only have the capability of creating a world that is kind and just but that it is our duty now. We have lived long enough serving the whims of these false masters. The elite of this world who make their money off of the backs of their workers now telling us where we can go and what we can do? Not allowing a livable wage, rigging every election, lying to everyone about these tragedies that befall us by supposed mysterious and natural means? No. This suffering is created by them to keep us afraid, easily manipulated. We are not so weak and stupid to allow this unnecessary suffering any longer. There are more of us than there are them and all we need to do is no longer play their game. We don’t even need to fight them. They are not a worthy opponent. Once we realize our true power as humans anchored in natural and honest ways, we just create a world built upon truth. All we need is right here. All will be revealed.
This ideal world is one where the quality of your character is more important than your wealth and power. If you operate out of deception, greed, cruelty – you are disempowered in this world. Kindness and compassion are guiding principles. Everyone is taken care of, their basic needs met as well as the opportunity to live in their passion and purpose. We live in a highly deceptive world now. We have no idea the level of deception there is, it’s obscene. We are getting glimpses now into the depravity of the elite but still, I believe we are only scratching the surface. The world we could have if we have the courage to claim it is one of true freedom, equanimity, respect, human dignity. This is the bare minimum of what we deserve.
The album swings between all alternative heavy metal signs and spots and the whole gothic idiom, and it also grooves on pure R’n’R rails too. If I asked you to give us your top-5 inspiring album of all time, which ones would you choose and why?
Top 5 inspiring albums….this is difficult…
Architects – “All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us”: This album completely changed my life. Architects as a band is absolutely inspiring not only what they accomplish musically but what they have persevered through and what principles they align themselves to. I have the utmost respect for them as a band and they absolutely destroy every show they play. You can’t get heavier than them.
BMTH – “amo”: This album was an unexpected favorite of mine. I love how this band allows themselves to evolve beyond all limits, even risking their fanbase to be true to the moment. I find this album to be a sonic work of art. It’s a very personal experiential album to me, the perfect music at the perfect time.
Queens of the Stone Age – “Like Clockwork”: This album is the depth of QOTSA emotionally. I really felt them push out the bounds of time, space, grief, the void. I loved it and it has some existential moments on it. As a complete album as well, it holds true to its emotional statement of time beautifully.
Tool – “Opiate”: I listened to this album obsessively when I was young. It expressed how I felt perfectly. It was the first time I had heard that level of visceral emotion in music and set the bar on how authentic music could be from then on for me. Show me how you really feel, make me feel something. That is what that album does every time. Nothing less.
Massive Attack / Mad Professor – “No Protection”: This album is just pure depth. A moment in time and also a quintessentially beautiful, timeless album.
…and your current top-5 at home or on the highway?
Top 5 now…
Architects: “Holy Hell”
Architects: “Lost Forever / Lost Together”
Architects: “ANIMALS” (from: For Those Who Wish To Exist: to be released Feb 2021)
Gojira: “Another World” (another single from hopefully what will be an album released soon)
BMTH: “Post Human: Survival Horror”
What was your first solo violin improv album ‘Glass ~ Live at Grace Cathedral’ back in 2012?
‘Glass…’ was an improv album I recorded inside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I was doing mainly improv violin performance during this time, busking downtown SF and I met Gregory James who produced this album on his label Valence Records. Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records who has a tremendous career working with hifi recordings engineered the album. They had the idea to put me in Grace Cathedral to record this incredibly hi-fidelity album using equipment that Gus Skinas made which gets into technical aspects far beyond my ability to comprehend. Basically, it is higher quality audio than analog, but it’s digital. Grace Cathedral has a 7-second natural delay as well so the acoustics are just stunning. We rented out the cathedral for two days and I improved for hours and hours both days. We then chose the best parts and made the record. Each song is completely improvised on the spot, uncut, as it was played, no edits except for where it starts and where it ends. We did a second record the same way called ‘Creation’. We are planning a third improv record hopefully this year and I am planning to do a remix album including some tracks from Glass and Creation.
Any further plans with KM1 (near future, long term)?
Yes, my plans for KM1 are to get back into the studio to record the next album as soon as we are able. The songs are written and I can’t wait to get back in there and record them. I was hoping to tour Europe and am looking actually to relocate to Paris to dive into the European music scene. Their deep love of metal and goth and lack of shyness around intensity and darkness really speaks to me. I feel like this band could really shine over there. However, it’s really all about being nimble right now with the global landscape. My goal is just to keep writing, keep making videos, keep evolving, and to push this band to a new level musically with the next album.
If I told you that the Earth is flat and that Covid-19 doesn’t really exist, what kind of doctor would you recommend me to visit?
I would not send you to a doctor at all and this is such a great question. When people start to unplug from the matrix if you will you can come up with some pretty interesting theories as to the true nature of our reality. would encourage everyone to always ask questions, always think for themselves, never let anyone shame you into obedience. We need to ask some hard questions right now about what is really going on and that requires bravery, a nuanced look at our reality, and high levels of discernment. Keep searching for the truth. Don’t let anyone stop you.
Emily Palen, Thank You for this interview, the last words are on you!
Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the album and for your thoughtful questions. Music is such an interesting path right now given the situation we are all in. Music has always been what people call a hard business and now we can’t play shows or tour or even travel. We can still connect though through music. We can still create. We can still be incredibly powerful within our own lives and we will pave a way forward in which, I feel, real authentic music that is not fueled by big money and vapid narcissism will be valued. Humans are craving something real right now. This moment is a huge opportunity to connect to that. What is music for if not to change the world?
Keep up with KnightressM1:
Interview by Loud Cities’ Mike