Interviews

Jennifer Christensen's Dark Neoclassical Odyssey

Disemballerina's cello-wielding multi-instrumentalist talks black metal, Kierkegaard, and sickness.

Shayne Mathis

Jennifer Christensen, center, playing live with Disemballerina / Photo by Jose Sandoval

Prolific musicians are nothing new. Tangerine Dream has recorded more than 120 albums. Frank Zappa recorded 62 albums while he was alive, and his family trust released 37 more after his death in 1994. Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices has written more than 1,600 songs over the course of his 30 year career. While Jennifer Christensen isn't nearly as prolific as the aforementioned freaks of nature, her musical output is still impressive and she has a demonstrated ability to write compelling music for a number of disparate genres. It's true that Robert Pollard is responsible for a totally absurd amount of lyrics in his lifetime, but can he compose a 40 minute long black metal track before banging out quick a folk-tinged cello dirge?

Christensen, a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays piano, guitar, bass, cello, violin, and harp, first embarked on her musical journey as a singer. "As far back as I can remember I've always wanted to make music. My inspiration came from a wide variety of musical genres. I began as a vocalist, and picked up instruments through the years. I had many wonderful mentors and teachers through my life, and I continue to learn from a wealth of talented people," she told me during a recent email exchange.

In 2000, she briefly joined the now-defunct hardcore punk band The Wage of Sin as the group's bassist. She left the band in 2002, and has since written and recorded a perpetually growing amount of music in a wide range of styles. Numerous guest appearances followed, including a cello spot on an album from ecocentric black metal act Wild's Reprisal, guest vocals for Seattle darkwave act Athyrium, and various recorded and live work with the folk punk outfit Holy North American Motor Highway. She currently plays bass and handles some vocals in the black metal band Sadhaka as well as helming her own solo black metal project, Møllehøj. Recently, Christensen become a member of the acclaimed Portland chamber doom band Disemballerina. "Upon first hearing, I was drawn to the music of Disemballerina. By coincidence, I was invited to play an opening solo cello set for them. We eventually joined forces and have been working together since," she explained.

Superficially, it may seem odd that a classically trained cellist would also enjoy the polarizing cacophony of black metal, but she doesn't hesitate to profess her love for it, and her folk and neo-classical work tends to conjure the kind of dark, evocative atmosphere that permeates so much of the genre. "Love it or hate it, I think black metal is extremely passionate music, and creating that kind of music gives me more freedom to express intense emotions. I began listening to it in my pre-teen years, and I've always been drawn to the rawness of the sound," she said, adding, "I think the structure of classical music is a little more challenging, especially because I typically compose for more instrumentation than simply with guitar and drums, as I do with my black metal music. I think it can be harder to compose music with other people sometimes, too, but at other times, it can be magical."

Even a brief glance at Christensen's musical resume reveals someone driven to ceaselessly create. Over the last several years, she's been responsible for an abundance of great music, and there's more to come later in 2015. "I recorded an album with Disemballerina called Poisoned Gown, which is scheduled to be released on vinyl at the end of the year. I am on an extended backcountry journey right now but, when I return and relocate, I hope to record the full-length classical album I've been hoping to do for ages for piano, violin and cello. Lots of collaborations being talked about right now, too." One of the tracks from that new Disemballerina album, "That Is The Head Of One Who Toyed With My Honor," has already premiered at Noisey, and, if the track is any indication, fans of menacing folk-influenced chamber music (or music in general) should take heed.

One of the collaborations Christensen mentioned is also slated for release later this year. On December 18, Red River Family Records and Ravenwood Recordings will co-release a two song split seven-inch split between Christensen and solo Appalachian black metal act Twilight Fauna. Rather than writing a black metal song in the vein of her project Møllehøj, she instead chose to write and record a neoclassical piece that matches the tone of Twilight Fauna's song, rather than the sound. "Paul Ravenwood from Twilight Fauna approached me about being a part of the split and I was really encouraged when he was open to my side being of any musical genre. He's a wonderful person to work with and it helped get me inspired to create when I was given free range to make the music I wanted to. We decided to base the split on a similarity of intention/emotional content in the music rather than match our sounds. I think in the end it's a very powerful album," she said.

Her track, "Sickness Unto Death," is inspired by both her love of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's book by the same name and some of her own ongoing health issues. "In my teenage and college years, I adored Kierkegaard's writings because I heard so much of myself in his work. Although he used a lot of religious imagery which didn't necessarily resonate with me, I appreciated his work Sickness Unto Death especially, with his musings on despair and search for meaning," she explained. "In my piece, it's actually a reference to my chronic illness and how difficult that can feel sometimes, as the musical content of the piece tells the story of my frustration, depression and strange acceptance of my medical situation," she said.

There's no way to know what the future has in store for Jennifer Christensen, but she doesn't strike me as the kind of person who waits around for fate to deal her a good hand. The only question about the future of her musical career is when she'll finally start pulling in the level of exposure she so richly deserves.

Shayne Mathis is keeping it sick on Twitter - @metalshayne2000