Nebulous Dawn: An Interview with Jenn Taiga (Interview + Full Album Stream)
Jenn Taiga has been flying through subspace for a few years at this point, creating a dynamic cross between Berlin School electronics, dungeon synth, and far out progressive landscapes. While Jenn has involved herself within the dungeon synth scene, playing at its festivals, and devoting herself to new releases under the tag of dungeon synth, her music possesses elements that are more cosmic in origin. Lunar Nocturnes and Esoteric Incantations is her fifth release and second on Tridroid Records. From the radiant opening of "Six of Swords" to the grand finale "...As Our Offerings Rise to the Heavens," Lunar Nocturnes and Esoteric Incantations offers a release that is both personal for the artist and mystical for its listener. With influences ranging from Klaus Schulze to various winter synth musicians, Jenn Taiga walks a path that is without time or discernible space.
Jenn was very gracious in answering my questions about synth music, tarot, radio, and the potential for a game night. Her candor and openness about music was welcoming as well as the desire for the listener to draw their own conclusions regarding her music. Jenn’s music invites its listeners to construct their own world with the sounds she creates. At over a half hour long, Lunar Nocturnes and Esoteric Incantations urges its listeners to evoke scenes of places beyond this realm of understanding. Sometimes these places are frightening, and at others they are sublime. If I were to imagine a world in which her music would be fitting, it would be an Atlantean cityscape where its architecture is luminescent under an endless black night. These vivid visions add to the album’s charm and emotional weight as Lunar Nocturnes and Esoteric Incantations has become one of my favorite records to imagine a space in time that has yet to exist. Read a full interview and listen to Jenn Taiga's upcoming album in full ahead of its release date below.
Tell me about your history with synths and how you eventually ended up here.
Well I started out as a pianist, taking lessons from ages seven to 16. At the time, I only had any interest in the piano. Synthesizers only came onto my radar around the time I was 17 or so; I was attending a performing arts high school where I was first really introduced to rock and roll (more specifically, by way of prog rock bands like ELP and Rush), which tended to feature synthesizers pretty heavily. Seeing as I liked the music, I wanted to be able to play it, and to do that I had to learn my way around a synthesizer. So I studied up whatever resources on synthesis I could find (Gordon Reid's "Synth Secrets" series was a godsend), and just before my 19th birthday I had sold enough and saved enough to buy my first synthesizer- an Arturia Minibrute. Turns out I find synthesis to be a thoroughly satisfying experience, and I got hooked on 'em.
I played in a couple cover bands where I honed some of my performance chops and saved up for some more serious keyboard gear. What I really wanted to do was start my own band playing original music of mine, but that hadn't panned out for several reasons. When I was around 21 or so, I came across a live video of Klaus Schulze playing live on KOLN in Brussels around 1977, which is when an idea hit me- "Hey, if this guy can just diddle around with all of his synthesizers and no band on live TV with a big audience, then why can't I? Fuck bands, I'll just play with myself!" And I've been playing with myself ever since.
You have been releasing records since 2017 but it wasn't until 2019’s Darjeeling Dreams that you used the tag of dungeon synth. It was also the record you started to release music under the name Jenn Taiga. Was this a transformative record for you both in terms of sound and identity?
Darjeeling Dreams was a fun EP that I don't get to talk about enough, probably because it was such a spur of the moment release. Funny story, actually -- I wrote and recorded the whole thing in two hours. It was winter of 2019 and a lot of my internet pals were talking about "winter synth," which is a subgenre of dungeon synth (think artists like Snowspire, Paysage d'Hiver, and Polar Keep). I was stuck at home during a particularly nasty snowstorm, so I got the idea in my head that I'll take a crack at making some of what everyone's been talking about. So, I did just that- or at least, I attempted to. Darjeeling Dreams' status as "winter synth" is up for debate in dungeon synth circles where it gets brought up, but then again most folks enjoy trying to discuss what genre my music is or isn't. Anyways, I hit up my buddy Eareckson from Westward Journey and about half the bands in upstate NY to ask for the full res photo of a picture of the woods out his way that he had posted to Facebook, had a friend format it into an album cover, and that was that. I'll admit I didn't really think about the work in relation to "my sound," because I feel like my sound has just been "whatever music I make," Since I made this music, it was therefore my sound. Releasing music under one's own name is liberating in that regard; unlike specific bands or projects that tend to have an established style or vibe, I can justify releasing anything under my own name because the only qualifying criteria for it is that I made it.
About the name Jenn Taiga; about a month beforehand, I had realized and accepted my identity as a nonbinary trans woman and as such changed my name to better reflect that. Along with that change came changing my logo, my Bandcamp page, and all of my social media URLs. Darjeeling Dreams had the honor of being my first release using my proper name solely out of happenstance. Nothing about the album was planned out, it was all just happenstance!
What is your relationship with dungeon synth specifically? Where did your interest in the genre begin?
A few years ago, my buddy Colin from Willzyx shot me a Facebook message going absolutely wild about "these guys dressed up like wizards making fantasy music with synthesizers and shit," insisting that it'd be right up my alley. He sends me a live video of this band Sombre Arcane performing, and I'm just awestruck. Not only was it damn good, but also I found some other people who play spooky music and dress up like D&D characters! Up until that point I hadn't heard of or found anybody doing anything even remotely like me, so I was thrilled. I reached out to them both and introduced myself, and we got to chatting a little here and there. I see some of their FB posts about a "dungeon synth," which I figured sounds rad as hell. After all, I like all kinds of synthesizers AND all kinds of dungeons. I should love this "dungeon synth," right? So I did a little bit of digging and found some stuff that really wasn't too interesting to me, until I came across two specific artists -- Jim Kirkwood and Fogweaver. Fogweaver's music is absolutely gorgeous, and was delivered to me in such a way that I could better appreciate the sound (at the time, I hadn't had any significant exposure to anything lo-fi, so the more "old school dungeon synth or OSDS'' sound didn't really land). Jim Kirkwood, however, is what convinced me that there might just be a place for my own music in the dungeon synth world. His music leans heavily on a lot of Berlin School and prog rock influences, while also capturing some major fantasy vibes that one would expect of dungeon synth. I knew it was for me! And sure enough, it is. There's a whole lot of dungeon synth that I absolutely adore, and it holds a dear spot in my heart.
Where does your newest album Lunar Nocturnes and Esoteric Incantations fit into your body of work?
Well, it's my second full length album (I consider Ascent to be more of a demo than anything). I'm anticipating recreating the old joke of reviewers referring to it as my "sophomore album" out of obligation or compulsion on their end, hahah! I was, and still am, taken aback by just how popular Plight was, and bearing that in mind I wanted to give everyone who's supported my music something that they can enjoy without having to block off time in their calendar just to get through a song. It's also somewhat less heavy on the side of self-indulgent shredding, which I'm hoping makes it easier for folks to approach. I don't think I can answer much more beyond that, seeing as to fully understand how it fits into my body of work I'd have to have a complete picture of what my body of work looks like, and sadly I didn't spec into divination.
Four of the six songs on this new release have Tarot references. The cards reference subjects such as "Transition," "Strength," "Authority," and "Justice." Would all of those concepts be present in this release?
They certainly could be, for sure. Do you feel like they're present in the release? I usually prefer allowing the listener to draw their own conclusions regarding my music; I'm not audacious enough to tell people what I think they should get out of it! That'd be ridiculous! Truth be told, I didn't actually pick those titles for each of the four songs on side Lunar Nocturnes. I couldn't think of any titles for the life of me, so I pulled out a Tarot deck and pulled out a card for each song. I'm sure one could draw themes connecting the cards' correlations to the songs, I know I did that once I decided that the songs would go on an album together. But much like Tarot, songs mean different things to everybody.
This leaves the last two songs "Braziers are Burning" and "...As Our Offerings Rise to The Heavens" feeling like a connective conclusion. They are also the two longest tracks. Do these have significance in the record?
Those song titles were also assigned after each of the songs were made. "Braziers are Burning" came to me while I was brushing my teeth one morning, and I thought that it would work well enough for the song it was assigned to. It felt kinda nerdy and dungeony, but also had a slightly violent edge to it, what with dealing with fire. "...As Our Offerings Rise to The Heavens" was a bit more involved. That song wouldn't have been written, and indeed the whole album wouldn't have come out, if I didn't end up meeting my girlfriend Marie in person for the first time in early September. I was in a pretty bad spot regarding my music, my will to create, etc. but being with her in person, holding her hand, gazing into her eyes, and finally being able to kiss her had filled me with such a profound swelling of emotion. It feels like a stoked flame in my chest and gut, radiating ever outward, and it makes me want to create.
So after that I worked on writing the song, I wanted to give it a title that had a degree of cohesion with Braziers are Burning. By then I had been pretty committed to the idea of having an album split into two distinct parts, so I figured, "Well, we already have a fire present. But what's it burning? Why would people burn shit in a brazier?" That's when I remembered about how the Carthaginians and other Phoenecian city-states would sacrifice infants and offer their cremated remains, *burnt in braziers,* to their gods. Most of the time, when people burn stuff (in this case, infants) to sacrifice, they make their intentions known as the smoke and ashes rose upward, carrying their intentions into the heavens and to the gods. Whether or not this is significant to the album isn't really for me to decide; again, that's the responsibility of the listener. After all, I just wanted to come up with titles for the songs! Instrumental music can be tricky in that way, as you can't just pick from the lyrics to come up with a title for the song.
The Northeast Dungeon Siege (NEDS) series was interesting since it gave musicians a chance to play live in an isolated setting while reflecting their own personalities. How was that experience for you? Is that your music room? Are those your antlers on the wall?
Yeah, NEDS was fun! I love those cats and all the hard work they do. It was an interesting experience for me; I had to set up my living room in such a way that it didn't exactly look like a living room, and play to an audience consisting of my phone. It was actually somewhat difficult in that way, as most of what I feel is special about my performances is how I change my playing based on the other acts on a bill as well as the mood of the audience. I couldn't do that, considering I hadn't listened to the other artists' sets (as all of our sets were pre-recorded) and the only feedback my phone had given me was a red "recording" light and a couple text notifications. The antlers on the wall came from a now closed breakfast and lunch place that I used to love going to called The Brass Buckle. When they had closed up, they were selling all of the stuff that was in the place, and I bought those antlers.
Outside of that performance do you play live?
Yes! I've played over 70 shows as a soloist, and I forget how many playing in bands. In fact, my debut full length Plight was a recorded live concert. Live performance is where I get the vast majority of my artistic satisfaction, and I've missed the whole experience dearly during this pandemic (including hauling all of my crap up and down venue stairs, if you'll believe it).
Being a part of the dungeon synth scene as well as a concert pianist (is that right?), can you see dungeon synth being a live outlet for artists and fans? Could you see in person concerts or maybe even more pre recorded concerts like NEDS?
Oh gods no, I could never be a concert pianist! The classical music snobs would never let me into their snobby, upper-crust cliques. I was referring to performances of my solo material! I'd gigged out around 20-30ish shows before even putting out my first demo, long before I knew what dungeon synth was. I do definitely think that dungeon synth can and should be enjoyed live so long as the artist can perform it (I specify because there's a lot of dungeon synth that exists solely as a studio creation in terms of how the music is created). I'd love to see more dungeon synth artists gigging out if/when it's safe to do so again, either on dungeon synth specific bills like NEDS or as part of mixed genre shows (which I personally tend to prefer).
For those maybe not familiar with the term Berlin school or maybe the sound in which you play, could you give us a description of the type of music you play and maybe a few records for those who are interested in the style?
Without using any genre labels, my music could best be described as "heavy and haunting electronic soundscapes whose melodies dance between shreddy and atmospheric." As for records, Klaus Schulze's Moondawn, Tangerine Dream's Stratosfear and Ricochet, as well as Lisa Bella Donna's Odyssey are all great examples.
What about your favorite records of this year or 2020? This could be synth based or not.
A lot of great shit came out in 2020, which I guess shouldn't be a huge surprise. Mesa's EP Glow is a phenomenal work of guitar music that blends several stylistic facets together in such a way that really captures my heart. Regarding Mesa, after their next release I'll actually be the other permanent member of that band -- it's exciting for me, as most of the people who are familiar with who I am today have never heard me play in a band before! Werepanther's Origin Story just blew me away in terms of execution and the creativity behind it (everything that the artist behind it creates is perfection, by the way. I highly recommend checking out all of Adam Matlock's works), and it's one that I play pretty damn frequently. The one that takes the cake though, would be King Gorm's self-titled release. This thing is a prog rock tour-de-force that just *Gets Me Going* whenever I listen to it. It's one of those releases where I sit and think, "Damn. Why am I even bothering to make music? This is IT." Easily one of my top 10 albums of all time.
As for 2021, there's also been a lot of really solid shit coming out. Redhorn Gate's Sires of Old is definitely one of my favorites, and is in my mind a modern classic in the world of dungeon synth. Putrescine's The Fading Flame is another beauty that I've been unable to get enough of. Which is funny, since I'm not usually much of a metal person, especially not death metal. This release in particular, though, is pretty damn special. Stoked to hear more of what will come out this year (including a few releases that I know of but don't have permission to publicly discuss).
Outside of this musical project you also do radio work with The Forest at Night and Identity Null. Can you talk about that as well as the importance of radio shows in music discovery.
Yes! The Forest at Night and Identity Null are two radio shows hosted by my dear sister Sarah Allen Reed (I mainly handle back-end stuff). TFAN, featuring explicitly-antifascist extreme and experimental music, and ID Null, showcasing queer electronic music, both serve to provide a space to showcase marginalized artists and give them the attention that an otherwise largely discriminatory music industry would not. Recently, The Forest At Night has also had a facet serving as a record label for charity, having released the four way comp "A Plague Upon Four Houses" in October of 2020, as well as Dread Maw's EP "Libations of Blood" out on June 4th, which will be our first physical release.
Radio shows have always been important for music discovery, and that really hasn't changed. Back in the day before the internet, the radio was how most folks found new music. After all, how can you listen to an artist for the first time without the artist being presented to you? Radio shows do literally that. Nowadays, with online radio shows featuring any and all styles of music becoming the norm, people are turning to these somewhat more niche shows to find more music and I think that's great. The more music people like, the happier they are. And the more independent music gets promoted, the more independent artists gain support. It's a win for everyone involved.
Do you feel dungeon synth, or any synth based fantasy ambient, could offer a haven for marginalized artists given its direct distribution among fans and its tendency to embrace pseudonyms and alternate personalities?
Hiding behind personas for safety as a marginalized person isn't safety, it's a response to an immediate, implied, or potential threat. Unfortunately, dungeon synth has many cultural ties with black metal, and as such it's inherited many of the cultural problems often found in black metal (racism, homophobia, neo-nazi idolization, etc), and much of the community is currently more focused on maintaining a level of "genre purity" in newer artists than it is actively rooting these problems out. That's hardly a haven, if you ask me. Granted, there are of course a lot of folks doing their best to command space for marginalized people; that's why I'm as openly queer and trans as I am when conducting myself as a musician. I'd like to see a day come where people don't feel like they have to hide behind pseudonyms or anonymity for fear of being harassed by bigots, and do genuinely hope that we'll be able to see that day come soon.
Hypothetically we are going to meet up and play games for the night. You can choose anything, (board game, RPG, video game, card game) but it has to be for four hours. What are we playing and is anyone else coming?
We're playing D&D. You bring two friends and I'll bring two friends, it'll be great.
Now that you have fallen into my trap, let me ask you what edition of D&D we are playing and if you are a player what class / race are you playing and if you are the Dungeon master, what type of campaign are we playing?
Hah, you're talking like I didn't actively want to talk about nerd shit. If I had my choice, we'd be playing Pathfinder 1e. I love the stock setting of Golarion, and there's an incredible amount of options available for both players and GMs to use. When I'm a PC, I usually like to make my character around what other people in the group are making. I prefer being a regularly useful member of a party as opposed to any specific playstyle. If I'm running the game, we're running a horror game. Even when I actively try not to, all of the games I run eventually turn into horror one way or another, so it's easiest to just dive right in from the get-go.
Even though your newest record was just released, what are your hopes and plans for the rest of 2021 leading into next year?
Yeah, I've got a bunch of stuff planned out! On top of this latest release, I've got another full length album that'll eventually get released, consisting of my Northeast Dungeon Siege MMXXI performance, with a potential bonus goodie alongside it depending on how things pan out. I've also been slowly writing an EP as well as another full-length album, though I don't know how soon those will come out. Right now, I am currently the newest member of Mesa, and will be the second member of the band alongside the founder of the band, Marie McAuliffe. That's something I've been excited about for a while now, considering that she's honestly one of the best musicians and songwriters in the game right now. I'm anticipating that to keep me pretty busy, considering how complex Mesa's writing has gotten currently, and I expect that my additions will take some time to really nail down. That said though, I think that I'll be able to contribute a great deal, and we're both chomping at the bit to see where things go. Writing should start a bit later this year, assuming that all goes according to plan. Considering how the past 14 months have gone, though, I feel like just about everything I've said here should be taken with a couple grains of salt!