Hennessey Uses the Past to Inspire Her Music’s Future

As an aspiring time-traveler, New Wave science fiction enthusiast, and self-proclaimed “Bowie Berlin triptych worshipping/ Gorillaz cosplaying person,” Hennessey frontwoman Leah Hennessey unsurprisingly creates music that displays the boundlessness of creativity.

Raised by open-minded artists herself, including New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, Leah says it’s her ability to dive into history and refurbish what was lost that makes her art so unique.

Hennessey’s debut EP is due out this fall, but with society currently grappling with COVID-19 and racial justice protests, live performances are unlikely to happen anytime soon. However, Leah says “for once” in her life sharing something through the internet feels “thrilling” and that “contributing even a little shard of vision into this new world we’re dreaming feels good.”

“When the protests began, at first I felt like I was being ripped out of my fantasy of the past, but I quickly realized that the line between past and present is unbroken,” she tells BTRtoday. “In 1816 the radicals were talking about abolition, and today we’re talking about prison abolition, but the racism is the same and the ideals of freedom are the same.”

Read the entire interview with Leah Hennessey below and watch Hennessey’s newest music video for the cover of “We Will Not Be Lovers” by The Waterboys.

Hennessey – “We Will Not Be Lovers”

BTRtoday (BTR): So, Hennessey’s EP is coming out very soon, and with coronavirus and the protests going on, tell me how you feel about debuting your music at such a pivotal time.

Leah Hennessey (LH): For once in my life, sharing something via the internet feels thrilling. People who have lived their lives in a fog of implanted capitalist desires and vague despair are seeing that systemic inequality damns all of us and that there is only hope in revolution and change.

Black Lives Matter could be the largest movement in our country’s history. The pandemic has made the entire planet face mortality in a way many of us never have and in a way none of us have collectively. For me, growing up in the Bush years, post 9/11, I felt like a character in a doomed, if not sometimes exciting, dystopia. Earlier this year one of my best friends started this “No Dystopia” thing, urging all of us to reject the allure of dystopian fiction. As the J.G. Ballard reading, Bowie Berlin triptych worshipping Gorillaz cosplaying person I am, this was difficult for me, but I think I finally understand. We could be among the last generation of humans on this planet or we could be the ones who shepherd humanity’s rebirth.

Contributing even a little shard of vision into this new world we’re dreaming feels good.

BTR: From what I’ve taken from your music so far, you seem to be very inspired by history. With the song “Let’s Pretend (It’s the 80s)” and even your newest cover of “We Will Not Be Lovers,” which shows some classic art history references in the video—I feel like you might have some good views on how history affects art and/or humanity in general that you might be able to share.

LH: I spent the first half of quarantine in the early 1800s. I’ve been working on a long term project with my collaborator Emily Allan about the Romantics, particularly Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, which has become an obsession. Rooting my perspective at one point in time (Geneva, 1816) has given me access to so much history that previously felt remote or irrelevant.

I think that when I’m rooted in the present, it’s harder to connect with the past because it’s all uniformly “the past.” When I become a time traveler and part of me is living a parallel life in 1816, then everything can potentially be present. When the protests began, at first I felt like I was being ripped out of my fantasy of the past, but I quickly realized that the line between past and present is unbroken. In 1816 the radicals were talking about abolition, and today we’re talking about prison abolition, but the racism is the same and the ideals of freedom are the same.

The narrative of progress is so seductive, but it’s an elaborate fiction. There are massive advancements in technology and medicine and then there are major setbacks and genocides and dark ages. Things don’t just gradually get better for people—rights are fought for and won and maintained through struggle. My friend Tony Oursler was saying to me a while ago that when you’re looking for ways to make magic as an artist, you can always go looking in the past for technologies that were abandoned or ideas that died out in their infancy and pick up dropped threads to make something truly new. The past is alive and there are voices crying out to be heard which have invaluable insights to offer about the present.

BTR: Tell me about this newest release, “We Will Not Be Lovers.”

LH: The song is a cover. It’s by the Scottish songwriter Mike Scott of the band The Waterboys, most famous for their ‘80s folky new wave hit The Whole of The Moon. It’s a song about passion and about the violence of desire—it spoke to my self-breaking heart in a way nothing else had. I think the lyrics have taken on new meaning for me the more we’ve done it and the more the world changes.

BTR: Let’s talk a little about your own history. What was it like growing up with a punk legend as a father? How has your past affected your taste in music and style of writing?

LH: I’ve definitely inherited a stubborn taste for the arcane, the obscure, and the ephemeral from both my parents. They’ve given me this crazy faith that if I follow my own instincts, however bizarre, and I share my work generously, that people will understand. I guess because they understand. They never encourage me to “dumb down” what I’m doing. I know how rare that is and how lucky I am to have such freaky and open minds for parents. David (who is not my biological father but is very much my DAD) has had an inescapable effect on me as a performer and writer but his biggest influence has been as a parent.

BTR: If your music had a life motto, what do you think it would be?

LH: Just because it sounds cool doesn’t mean the lyrics have to be meaningless.

BTR: With COVID growing even stronger, where do you see the near future of music going?

LH: I hope that music will get weirder and less algorithmic and more personal. Without the pressures of touring and packing shows, I hope musicians take more risks with the music they release and don’t give in to the terror of scarcity and invisibility. My friends and I have been doing a weekly songwriting workshop on Zoom throughout quarantine, and it’s been so cool seeing how we inspire each other to get more vulnerable and less attached to our ideas of who we are or who we should be.

BTR: What else should we be keeping an eye out for in the future of Hennessey?

LH: We’re going to keep doing livestream shows and try to find new ways to make that fulfilling, and in the fall we’ll release our EP on Velvet Elk.

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