After Wax Idols, Hether Fortune Is Better Off Alone
Having abruptly disbanded her primary creative outlet for nearly a decade, the songwriter is now working by herself, at her own pace.
All photos by Joseph Jagos
There’s a video of Hether Fortune on YouTube. It’s August 2018, and she’s on stage at Elsewhere, playing a cover of The Verve’s 1997 single, “Bittersweet Symphony,” in the spacious Brooklyn nightclub’s more intimate Zone One room. For those familiar with her band Wax Idols, the performance will startle for a number of reasons: the impassioned way in which she delivers Richard Ashcroft’s lyrics, how she layers and then works around the looping guitar parts, how she even cracks a small smile when the audience whoops it up for her. But more than any of this, it’s surprising because she’s up there all by herself.
“It’s not easy, and I haven’t made it easy on myself,” Fortune says over the phone. “If I mess up, there’s nothing to hide behind. I have to start over.”
Just days prior to that show, Fortune took to Twitter to announce that Wax Idols would be canceling its upcoming East Coast tour and going on an “indefinite hiatus,” citing “personal issues.” The statement marked the end of nine years of work under that name, first in the form of a pseudonymous solo project and subsequently as a group effort, with an ensemble of players that included longtime friend Rachel Travers. “It’s weird not to be on stage with her anymore,” she says with a fondness for her former drummer. “Sometimes I look behind me and I expect to see her there and she’s not, and I’m like, Uhhhhhh.”
It’s not that Fortune needs a full band to function – far from it. Her leadership of the Oakland, CA-based Wax Idols meant driving it administratively as well as creatively. In addition to arranging songs, playing multiple instruments, and singing, she personally prepared press releases, booked tours six months in advance, and managed the schedules of multiple bandmates to keep the machine moving. While that industriousness certainly aligns with good old fashioned D.I.Y. values, Fortune says her motivations skewed more personal. “A lot of that was me wanting to show off what I could do,” she says. “That was a way for me to prove myself to myself in some way.”
Following a pair of Wax Idols albums for Hozac and Slumberland Records, respectively, and roughly coinciding with Fortune’s run as bassist for Vancouver-bred hardcore art punks White Lung, the former band’s 2015 breakout full-length, American Tragic, mined the same gothy post-punk vibe as countless other artists in the 2010s. But, as evidenced by the snarling rebuke of “Deborah” and the self-loathing lust of “Lonely You,” there was something transcendent coming through in Fortune’s catchy songcraft, something far more meaningful and real than than the dead rose-cosplay of her black-clad soundalikes. Arriving in the shadow of a divorce, the record is a harrowingly human experience, less like a spooky haunted house than a taxidermy shack full of preserved memories.
In keeping with the album’s title, Fortune’s discography has been marked by adversity with an almost uncanny regularity. Its release through Collect Records, an imprint led by Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly, coincided with the scandalous public drubbing of pharma bro Martin Shkreli, the label’s angel investor. (In the fallout, she established Etruscan Gold Records as an outlet for the band’s music, adding yet another layer of organisation and responsibility to her proverbial plate.) During the making of American Tragic follow-up Happy Ending, a lengthy process that Fortune said tested her patience for making music with a band, the Ghost Ship fire occurred, a devastating event that shocked the Oakland creative community and halted Wax Idols’ work. 36 people perished in the warehouse blaze, including some close to Fortune. “We were all morbidly depressed,” she says.
No stranger to loss, Fortune had never shied away from the subject in song. She is a self-described “death veteran,” having lost quite a few loved ones over the years. In the months before the Ghost Ship fire, she’d mostly approached the topic lyrically through the dual lenses of intellectualism and therapy. But in the fire’s grim aftermath, the gravity and proximity of it all took a toll on her process.
“That fire happened, and all of a sudden, Boom – I’m smack in the middle of death, and it’s really overwhelming in a horrific way that was new to me,” she says. “I was unable to write about death in the same way.”
With the other band members similarly grieving, Fortune found herself writing alone, writing differently, and writing often. Before long, it became clear that some of the new material was very different from the music she’d been making with Wax Idols. “It was more meditative, more minimal, less structure-oriented, less pop-structured,” she says. Not confined by genre, these poetic song sketches sounded worlds away from the shimmering garage rock Fortune had made her name with in Wax Idols.
“I was against a fuckin’ steel mountain of bullshit with that band all the time,” she says , alluding to the tumult that had plagued Wax Idols’ existence. “No matter what I did, it was pitfall after pitfall, dodging bullets left and right.” As such, the prospect of going it alone already felt like a good call. But the nature of the songs she’d been writing and the places that work had begun to take her creatively made it all the more enticing to Fortune, who had taken up painting concurrently with this new prolific spurt.
In February of this year, she shared the first of these solo cuts, a brooding number called “Sister.” Amid layered guitar noise, she sings fiercely of familial protection and outlaw pride, the song’s country-western soul affixing itself to sonics that are downright otherworldy. She sings: “I'm your sister / And I'll raise hell if it'll get you through / I'm your sister / And I'll kill any motherfucker if you need me to.” During our call, when her real-life baby brother picks up the line to tell her goodnight, the tenderness they share is palpable.
As Fortune got deeper into writing her solo stuff, the rest of the band came back with their contributions in hand, prompting an attention shift back to Happy Ending. Her ultimate and perhaps inevitable decision to halt Wax Idols so soon after the record’s May 2018 release revealed some of the unintended consequences of her near-total control over the band, and the controls that being in a band had applied to her life. With its brutally prescient title, the self-released swan song immediately lost momentum. Fortune found herself incapable of continuing to promote it on her own to her exacting standards, and a lengthy string of headlining Wax Idols tour dates dissolved into the ether.
With the band’s dissolution disrupting the usual cycle of writing, recording, promoting, and touring, she needed to figure out how to proceed. In the immediate wake of the hiatus announcement, she committed to playing a handful of shows on her own, which meant quickly having to rejigger the songs for a solo set, alongside some of the new material and a few covers.
In addition to the aforementioned Elsewhere solo gig, Fortune effectively replaced Wax Idols at Basilica SoundScape, a darkly hued arts festival in Hudson, NY co-produced by her manager Brandon Stosuy. The show went off without a hitch, and gave her a way forward. But more than that, the experience moved her in ways that her recent performances with Wax Idols hadn’t. “People use this word a lot, especially artists, but it really was a transcendent experience for me,” she says. “I felt really connected to everybody in the room but, at the same time, I felt like I was in my own world completely.”
The Basilica set put her career into perspective. “With Wax Idols and within Wax Idols, I was very much trying to build a bit of a fortress around myself,” Fortune says. “Subconsciously, I wanted to have this sort of built-in protection of the gang, the crew, a band.”
Now, she no longer desires that protective veneer. Instead, she embraces the vulnerability that comes with releasing music under her own name, a vulnerability that feels congruent with the more free-floating material she’s been working on.
Above all, Fortune is adamant about not repeating herself, a sentiment that shines through in the way she’s opted to share her solo material: one song at a time. To date, she’s dropped three tracks: first “Sister” and, last month, the insightful ballad “Forget The Night,” which features California native Mikal Cronin on saxophone. Premiering here today, "Bird Of Prey" soars with purposeful pleas, Fortune's voice a revelation as drones give way to a throbbing dance beat.
“There’s a lot of different kinds of songs, and they all kind of feel the same and have similar motifs,” she says. “But the more and more I tried to imagine forcing them into one basket as an album and then doing the whole song and dance, the less I wanted to do it.”
Not only does Fortune prefer this relatively more leisurely pace to the Wax Idols grind, but she seems to genuinely enjoy playing solo in the live setting, with all the intimacy and riskiness that comes with sharing your deepest feelings with a group of strangers. In retrospect, the experience of playing in a professional touring rock band, basking in the relative safeness of predictability, had lulled her into a kind of complacency. “It got a bit autopilot,” she says. “Some of the nervousness, the what-ifs, had gone away. I didn’t realise how much I missed that.”
Notoriously inaccessible in the Wax Idols days, now she talks to the people and even cracks jokes on stage. “It’s liberating to be able to walk on, set up, play, and then when I’m done, I leave and I’m by myself,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about anybody else.”
Gary Suarez is a writer and reporter based in New York. You can find him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.