Albeit through the crackle of Zoom, there is an undeniable excitement and self-assuredness that reverberates through dark-pop songstress Circe. As we discuss topics including the pitfalls of modern sex education, the crossing of creative boundaries and exploration of dystopian worlds it becomes increasingly clear to me that Circe is a deeply intuitive artist with a vivid imagination. Her music demonstrates clear influence of art-pop icons such as Bjork, Grimes and FKA Twigs whilst allusions to vast, filmic soundscapes are also frequently made. Indeed, tracks such as ‘Ten Girls’ and ‘Steve Harrington’ would certainly not feel out of place on a Stranger Things episode considering their sweeping, electronic soupiness. Furthermore, Circe’s fascination with mythology and religious iconography illuminate a deeply inquisitive character who seeks inspiration in everything. Above all else, Circe’s desire to be an honest and authentic performer is something that shines through everything from her lyrics to her social media presence.
Since impressing critics with 80’s-synth inspired single ‘Ten Girls’ and gaining notable airplay on BBC Radio 1, Circe has recently released her first EP She’s Made of Saints via Jazz Life. The EP is a thrillingly outspoken feminist record that aims to tackle relevant issues concerning the lives of all womxn. She is brutally honest in her questioning of modern society and does so through a kaleidoscopic approach to sound. She boasts a bold yet dishevelled aesthetic that aims to distort our expectations and play with the dystopian side of society.
Thanks so much for chatting with me! As the year is drawing to a close, how have you found 2020 and dealing with life in lockdown?
Apart from obviously all the absolute stress and awful things that have been happening, on a very personal level, I’ve been ok with lockdown. I feel guilty saying it but I’ve been so creative! I think I have finally come to terms with the idea that I’m quite a natural loner. I’m really obsessive so once I start something, if I get into this world of writing I don’t even notice if it’s been like four days and I’ve been in the studio and haven’t really spoken to anyone. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had my studio setup all in my room and during the second lockdown I went to stay at a studio.
I thought, how can I push this whilst I don’t have any other things I have to be at – I don’t have any social engagements and no one is relying on me? There’s an artistic level to it where you just decide to go completely into this other world. I was reading a lot and I’ve always been massively inspired by TV and drama so I was just watching a lot of TV and movies. I watched La Dolce Vita for the first time and got so into it that I built the whole studio to look like it. I just managed to immerse myself.
Have you found it hard releasing music as a new artist during this period? It must be especially odd with everything being so digitally orientated.
It feels mad! Like is this how we share music now? Just online in this weird place? Luckily, it kind of suits what I’m trying to do and what Circe is which is not the usual gig format. Although it has been strange, I’ve been ok because I have had time to build this world.
Where did your inspiration for Circe come from then?
I read [Homer’s] Odyssey when I was at school and Circe is painted like a villain, but I had these amazing feminist teachers who didn’t think she was and neither did I. I became obsessed with her because in the story, men go to her island, try to take over and rape her but she turns them all into pigs. I have always loved mythology so have taken her name and have been building this world that is mystical and has witchcraft and dreamy sounds. That’s where she came from.
How about the religious imagery that you often make use of?
It’s always just been in my life and I have used it in my own way, bringing it into stories. It’s taken me a while to realise I am a bit of a storyteller. I grew up in a Catholic family but very liberal. I absolutely loved the iconography of it all and how beautiful it looked. I say I’m not religious but I love a lot of the stories told in the Bible – all these really dark things – and a lot of my lyrics use a lot of that imagery. There is this story of when Mary Magdalene washes Jesus’s feet and then uses her hair to dry them. I have always just thought that was so beautiful but weird and dark.
Your recent release ‘Dancer’ was inspired by themes of cultish worship, right?
Yeah, I got really into cults so a lot of the religious imagery comes from that. There is a documentary called The Source Family about a Californian cult which was active during the sixties and seventies and that was started by this guy Father Yod. I’m really fascinated with how someone can be so madly involved in a cult and I find a weird romance in it. There were a lot of women in the cult and they loved Father Yod. This one woman said, “I would give up anything for him, I would give up dancing for him”, and it was just a tiny little quote that just got to me. They were giving up not only just their life for him, but their body for him. I thought that was so beautiful and so I ended up writing a song about it. The surreal romance of it but also the danger I found exciting.
You have recently released your first EP She’s Made of Saints, how did you find the process and what was your initial inspiration?
I’ve been writing it I would say a year, starting before lockdown. I’m very dramatic and extreme so I think with 2020 being the maddest year we have ever lived through, I think accidentally it was surprisingly good timing for that to come out and I hope that’s why it has resonated. A strange EP for a strange time.
Your single ‘Ten Girls’ has done really well getting lots of airplay on Radio 1! What inspired that track?
That song came from me watching The Handmaid’s Tale. I remember going straight from watching it to sitting at the piano and writing it. There is a piece of music in it called ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and The Sky’s Turned Black’ by Jóhan Jóhannsen and I had that playing whilst I was writing the song. That started me off down this line of looking at feminism through this dystopian world that I felt we were in. Then Covid happened and I thought I want to release this this year because so many things just tied it all together. ‘Ten Girls’ has grown since it came out and I kept getting DM’s, it was mainly women but some men saying that they had been thinking about feminism and what it means. Some other people were messaging me to say ‘I literally use this song to stop me messaging back a softboi’ which I find so funny and fully endorse.
After that, ‘Ruined Your Sons’ was probably the second song I wrote. It was almost like an accidental b-side. I didn’t want to just do a ‘fuck men’ kind of song without looking at the other side and questioning what went so wrong. I was thinking back to when we had sex education at school, and I think one of the most pressing things for young people is porn. We had all of these lessons about how to eat healthy etc, but porn is one of the things that can really mess with people. I do think a lot of that is to blame for where a lot of terrible behaviour comes from. It comes from not being educated when we are young on what is good and not good sexually. I think the song does try to deal with that, there is a sensitivity buried there under all the hypermasculine performance that goes on. I was looking for hope in that song.
How about the track ‘I Don’t Wanna Die Here’?
I remember it so well because I was in such a strange mood where everything was going wrong but I made myself go into the studio. The drums were set up and I was like, how do I get myself out of this funk? I sat at the drums, had no idea what I was doing and just started banging them and this big rambunctious beat came out. I had these lyrics that were quite over the top and dramatic so I knew what the song was going to be. Lyrically I was muddling through some dark thoughts but the last line is about being over this by dawn and I think I found some peace right at the end with it. There are a lot of layers added to it and it just became this big orchestral, mad song with so much velocity.
What about performing live, are you looking forward to getting back out there hopefully at some point in 2021?
I am really happy in the studio but now I have done it for a year I have started thinking about live and I think Circe is going to be quite a different live show. It’s definitely not a rock set up by any stretch of the imagination. Every single song there are about 300 different layers so it’s going to be more like an art instillation and I think I want it to be quite interactive. Most artists dream is to headline Glastonbury but I think mine is to take over the vaults in the Tate and have a big show at the Tate Modern. Obviously, that is an absolute pipe dream but I have been massively inspired by Kate Bush, FKA Twigs and Bjork. Last year, I saw Bjork’s virtual reality show and I’ve just never been so excited in my life to go to my version of a gig. It was amazing and I was like, oh my god, this is how I want to do a show! I like the idea that you can touch things and be immersed in it.
Would you say that idea of immersion and storytelling is also important to how you approach the visual aspect of music making?
It’s only ever been budget constraints that have stopped me from doing more but I’m hoping next year as things start to change that I will be doing a lot of bigger visual things because people always describe Circe like soundtrack music. I released a video for ‘Dancer’ because I really wanted there to be some visuals that were more than just stills. Obviously, there were so many constraints so it was just me and my sister who is an incredible visual artist. I built some neon crosses and we went to a farm and filmed this story with my face and movements. I really like the video, it’s very simple but I think that it does a really good job of telling the story. I’m a bit of a tech geek so I was building a lot of lights over lockdown, I really love neon. I think a lot of my friends and family will be getting neon things for Christmas!
You delve into some really culturally relevant topics in your music, is that something you feel especially compelled to continue?
I think the best things are controversial. I want people to be questioning ‘what is that girl doing’ rather than ‘I love that’ because I think if you aren’t pushing the boundaries in 2020 what is the point. There isn’t one particular thing that people have to write about and art is always going to be subjective, but whatever is in your heart, that’s what you have to write about. Everyone has such a bullshit detector nowadays so I think the thing that does get you is when someone does something, whether it’s a lyric or a sound or an idea that just pulls on your heart strings. At the moment for me it is usually someone doing something quite outrageous because it has just been such an outrageous year that you want to do something that really makes you sit up!
Words: Hermione Kellow Photography: Willow Shields
Circe’s debut EP ‘She’s Made of Saints’ is out now via Jazz Life. Stream the EP here.