Extreme metal has been around for almost four decades now. A lot of writers, musicians and important people of our scene, way more experienced and better versed into the history of the genre than me, have written about its origins, its different subgenres and the artists and bands/albums that defined its development. This “academic” approach is really useful and interesting, especially for younger fans like myself, but I think that sometimes it doesn’t completely cover all aspects of the issue. What has driven and continues to drive so many people to occupy themselves with the themes we come across in this music? Surely, the element of provocation and the general social context play a significant role but there is also something else. The art of the dark and the macabre, meaning the projection of the more uncomfortable, darker and often misunderstood sides of the human psyche through art, is a creative expression that has existed for centuries. By placing extreme metal in this artistic constellation, the puzzle becomes complete and a bigger picture reveals itself.
Around and in connection with extreme music, there is a multitude of artists, from writers and painters/designers to photographers and tattoo and comic artists, that each through his/her own craft “worship” the same pantheon of mythical and imaginary beings, the same dark and unspoken spiritual plains, the same primordial force of nature. They are all inspired by the same muse in its different manifestations and all too often meet in the context of the music we love.
Katie Metcalfe is one of those artists. Writer, poet, photographer, blogger and extreme and dark music enthusiast, she cant’t help being a very interesting person. In the following conversation between us, she shares with us her existential journey and explains how she manages to mold her personal darkness into art.
D.P.: Let’s start with an introduction. Can you tell us a few things about yourself.
K.M.: I’m a 31 year old writer, poet, publisher and blogger with a northern fever as well as an unquenchable enthusiasm for the macabre. Generally, I’m considered ‘too wyrd’ for most people, which is fine, as I’m very much an introvert and function best in isolation.
D.P.: You are originally from Middlesbrough, UK. How come you live and operate from Sweden?
K.M.: I’ll take you back a bit to set the scene…I was born in Harrogate in North Yorkshire, and spent my very early years living in a farm house in a Lilliputian village called Littlethorpe just outside the ancient city of Ripon.
We lived for several years in a mining village on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors and when I was in my teens, moved to a small industrial town called Billingham, a couple of miles away from the better known town of Middlesbrough.
The North is in my blood, and from a young age I knew Scandinavia was where I wanted to be. As a six year old, I was obsessed with Richard Fleischer’s 1958 epic The Vikings and became besotted with the mountainous, forested landscapes and vast fjords.
Winter has a role to play too. It’s always been the season where I’ve felt most alive, and even as a child I longed for the darker, longer months of cold in the Far North.
I also attended a Steiner School, and much of the ethos was influenced by Scandinavian culture and living. The art of Elsa Beskow, John Bauer and Tove Jansson and the writing of Astrid Lindgren were hugely influential to me as a young child.
I’ve travelled extensively in Scandinavia (Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) and lived for almost a year in Norway. Being in the Nordic lands always felt right.
Out of the blue in late 2015, I met Hravn Decmiester from the Swedish black metal band Rimfrost, and I very happily ended up across the North Sea in Sweden. We’re now expecting our first baby.
D.P.: Poet, publisher, writer, blogger and a lot of things in between. How do you manage to balance all these things and be good at all of them at the same time?
K.M.: Well, I’m not all that great at balance, if I’m being perfectly honest. I would love to say that I am. And being good at everything I do? Well, sadly I wasn’t born a good writer. In fact, I used to be fucking terrible. But hard, and I mean hard work, time and sacrifice for my craft has, I hope, changed that and made me at least decent at what I do.
I’ve almost always put my writing career first, and often neglected my family, which nowadays I deeply regret. But you should know that writing saved my life (more about that later…) I’ve always used my creativity as a way to find happiness and to ‘manage’ my ill mental health. So for the majority of my existence it has felt really felt necessary to put my creativity first…if I didn’t I was a horrible person to be around.
But, I’m working really hard at creating a more balanced existence for myself and my loved ones, especially since I now have a step-daughter and a baby on the way.
As I mentioned before, I’m very much an introvert, and I’ve always preferred the company of my books, notebooks and pens to that of other people. I’m the ‘I’d rather be at home reading…’ kind of gal. Though saying that, I’m massively passionate about performing my poetry live on stage, and I don’t say no to a gig every now and then, especially if it’s my man playing.
Managing to achieve what I wish to achieve is helped massively by my compulsion to keep ‘to do’ lists. Lists for what to do during the day, during the week, during the month, during the year. I find ticking things off my list is the next best thing to an orgasm…and it keeps me halfway sane. Deadlines too. Deadlines are vital.
When I was growing up I was never viewed as someone who would ‘go far and do great things…’ Wanting to prove all the doubters wrong is something that continues to drive me forwards.
D.P.: You have done a quite extensive writing work on mental health issues and their impact on individuals and society. What urges you to research and study psychology?
K.M.: The urge comes from being mentally ill myself. When I was 14 years old I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, anxiety disorder and depression. My weight dropped from 60 kg to 35kg. I was taken out of school and at the age of 15 when I could smell Death’s breath, and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for almost a year.
Much of the time in hospital was spent on bedrest. I had supervised meals, supervised showers, supervised sleep. I was never left alone for long in case I exercised or dropped dead.
After five months on bedrest, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to be ill anymore. I wanted to be a published author more than I wanted to be an anorexic. I wanted to use all my energy to write and help others with the same condition. But it was easier said than done.
I worked to try and gain weight, but it was the hardest battle. I would see a tiny increase on the scales (say 100 grams) and my enthusiasm to get better would disintegrate. One of the only things that would keep me from eating my meals instead of hiding them at this point (and hiding food was a regular occurrence) was the threat of being tube fed.
While I was battling with the voice in my head, I started putting together my first book intended to help both anorexics and their families. In 2006 Anorexia: A Stranger In The Family was published by Accent Press.
I cringe when I read it back, but to know that writing it saved me, as well as other sufferers and their families helps me to not think too deeply about the words my struggling brain was producing at the time.
I was discharged from hospital just before my 16th birthday. But I wasn’t ready. Anorexia continued to disrupt my life and the lives of my family and friends until my mid-twenties.
No sooner had I recovered from anorexia, then I was diagnosed with bi-polar and psychosis, but that’s a story for another time. All of my experiences with mental health are what encourage me continue to write and speak widely about it. I despise the stigma attached to mental health, and will always be vocal to do my part in helping to dissolve it.
If anyone’s interested, I recently wrote a piece for Thought Catalogue about my experiences with bi-polar.
D.P.: Which are your main influences as a poet and a writer, classic or otherwise?
K.M.: It would be impossible to list them all here. I mean, I could…but I’d keep your readers for hours. If you don’t mind I’ll add some of my favourite books along with them because I love it when other writers do that…
Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves And Men), Jack London (White Fang, Call Of The Wild) Jay Griffiths (Wild), Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Women Who Run With The Wolves), Dayal Patterson (Black Metal : Evolution Of The Cult), Julia Cameron (everything) Stephen King (On Writing), Roselle Angwin (Writing The Bright Moment), Michelle Paver (Dark Matter), Neil Astley (editor of poetry anthologies Being Alive, Staying Alive, Being Human, Earth Shattering), Gretel Ehrlich (This Cold Heaven), Maya Hornbacher (Wasted), Tove Jansson (everything), Richard Adams, (Watership Down).
D.P.: You have worked with major extreme metal media outlets like CVLT Nation and Zero Tolerance Magazine. What’s your relationship with music? What kind of metal/bands are you into?
K.M.: I will try very hard not to make this into an essay…
My relationship with music is, as cliché as it might sound, a constantly evolving journey.
I grew up with biker parents, so I was always surrounded by heavy metal and rock, think Black Sabbath, Motörhead, The Cranberries. However I was also really fond of the folk music my Grandmother used to play, especially the Irish and Scottish folk ballads. The most depressing ones were my favourites.
In my early teens, my essential listening was Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Cradle Of Filth, Nirvana, Mortiis and…Björk. I would borrow Björk’s CDs from the library and record them onto tape.
There was no internet back then, so it was literally through word of mouth, and trips to the local library and record store that I discovered new stuff. (Kerrang! and Metal Hammer played a role in later years.)
After devouring everything by the bands I mentioned, I was ravenous for more extre me darker music…surprise surprise. Eventually I discovered Emperor (Mortiis being the former bass player led me on that trail) and Burzum. From there, well, you can imagine which bands followed.
For a long time black metal was my everything. I became one of those annoying, elitist shits. Thankfully though I grew up. Mostly. I do still love it when bands prioritise corpse paint when they perform, even if the sea of i-Phones has destroyed much of the mystique that I remember experiencing back in the Nokia days.
I think my long list of favourites will be very similar to the majority of black metal fans, so I’ll just give you a taste of which bands have been important to me over the years: Windir, Vreid (the whole Sognametal genre is sublime), Primordial, Burzum, Bathory, Rimfrost (and I’m not just saying that! Check out the new track A Clash Under The Northern Wind and you’ll get me…) Crown of Asteria (NOBODY does ambient black metal better), Wyrd, Dissection, Silencer, Peste Noire, Slegest, Draugurinn, Downfall of Nur, Turdus Merula, Gallhammer Forteresse, Summoning, Midnight Odyssey, Falkenbach, Isengard, Paysage d’Hiver, Walknut and Kalmankantaja. As you can see by this eclectic collection, I’m not stuck in a particular branch of black metal.
Inching away from the black metal genre, I’m hugely into the sounds of Mirel Wagner, Paleowolf, CocoRosie, Soap&Skin, the early work of Eivør Pálsdóttir, Chelsea Wolfe, Fever Ray, Wardruna, Tanya Tagaq and Darkher. At the moment I’m relishing the new albums from Björk and Fever Ray. I’m also infatuated with Sorni Nai by Finnish band Kauen. It’s an album inspired by the tragic events of the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
D.P.: You are currently working on a spoken word/dark ambient album entitled “Arctic Fever” with Meghan Wood of Crown Of Asteria. Can you tell us a few things about this project?
The initial plan was for Arctic Fever to be a touring spoken word and live music show, but sadly it never got off the ground.
After lying dormant with it for a few months, I had the idea to approach Meghan. I’ve been obsessed with her music for ages, and thought she was one of the few people who would be able to bring it to life.
Working with Meghan has been a beautiful dream. Her professionalism is inspiring and her talent knows no bounds. I’ve been left dumfounded with what she’s been able conjure up. Her music takes you North and leaves you there. I haven’t left the High Arctic since we started our collaboration.
Arctic Fever is an album that’s centered around the thawing of the Arctic. Through spoken word and dark ambient music, it portrays how the catastrophic changes are impacting the peoples, flora and fauna of the far north.
While the listener will have an insight into what is happening now in the North, they will also have the opportunity to envisage what life was like at the top of the world, before the Arctic was cursed with whisky, organised religion, diseases and heat.
Arctic Fever is a homage to the Arctic, and all who dwell there, who are experiencing, in real time, the sea ice lessen, the permafrost weaken and the north they have forever know disappear.
D.P.: Where does your fascination with northern cultures come from?
K.M.: I’ve always had a deep fascination for northern indigenous cultures, and from a young age was reading about Native American Indians. My mother was an eco warrior, and along with the Scandinavian influences, Native American culture was very much intertwined with our daily life…my siblings and I relied on the power of dream catchers from an early age to catch our nightmares.
As I grew older, my fascination wound its way further North to the High Arctic, its people, landscapes and animals. The respect and wonder that fills me when I so much as think of these remarkable souls and their homeland is profound. And the sadness that pours into my heart when I think of their vanishing world and ways is immeasurable. I can’t not write about them.
I would say it’s more than a fascination nowadays. It’s so deeply rooted that I find myself unable to and unwilling to move away from it. It’s my ambition to become widely recognized as a writer with a specialism in writing about the Arctic and Nordic countries. I’m hoping 2018 will be the year it happens.
D.P.: In today’s post-capitalist world where the techo-industrial complex tends to control every aspect of nature and human life, there is a growing number of people who look for spiritual meaning in those cultures. Unfortunately, this often leads to bigotry and to the strengthening of extreme right ideologies. Where do you stand on this?
K.M.: For once my answer is going to be short.
I need to make it absolutely clear that I have no affiliation with the extreme right and their ideologies. I find the situation deeply depressing and too often trivialized on social media.
I try and steer clear of this bullshit and not give it my time of day. Sadly, many of my friends who are deeply passionate about their northern heritage, but have nothing to do with the extreme far right have had to publically defend themselves online.
That’s all I have to say about that.
D.P.: You are also gonna publish a new poetry book this December titled “My Father, The Wendigo”. Can you tell us a few things about it?
K.M.: The title is taken from one of my favourite poems in the collection…a young boy’s father goes off into the forest to collect his fur trapping bounty and returns home changed. The Wendigo also happens to be one of my favourite evil spirits of the northern forests.
The collection itself is especially varied, and hosts dozens of poems exploring subjects and themes which fascinate me, including the loss of innocence, the consequences of death, the development of courage and the alluring beauty of new life.
In one poem, a young man in Finland ventures out on his first hunt for Karhu, the king of the forest, in another, I pay homage to the much loathed slug and in another I reflect on seeing my baby on the ultrasound scan for the first time.
D.P.: What are your plans for the future?
K.M.: Funnily enough, on today’s ‘to do’ list was to set my goals for December and to plan ahead for 2018…
My immediate future (December) is extremely busy, and will see the launch of Arctic Fever (21st December) as well as My Father The Wendigo and a collection of short stories entitled The Dead Walk Backwards.
I’m involved in the creation of photography, and will be re-stocking my Redbubble store, and starting up a new photography store with Vida Design Studio, as well as offering a number of prints through Etsy. More details about all of this to be announced!
2018 will see my long-running blog Wyrd Words & Effigies take something of a back seat, so I can launch a new blog focusing on The Arctic and the Nordic lands. And, if all goes well (i.e. If I can finish my business plan) I’ll be launching Cold Places Press, a publishing house putting out Arctic and Nordic related literature.
2018 will also bear witness to a number of new books from me, including a volume about my experience with Swedish culture and people, my 9th poetry collection and a collection of short stories based on mental illness.
I’m keeping everything crossed that 2018 will be the year that I can finally say that I’m capable of keeping my family fed, watered and housed with my work as full-time writer, blogger, poet and publisher.
Career aside, 2018 will be a very family focused year where I’m going to strive to achieve balance, as I will become a mother for the very first time. I was told as a teenager that there was a high chance I wouldn’t be able to have children, so this whole experience is something very, very special.
You can find Katie’s material here.
You can read the interview I did with Meghan Wood some months ago here.